Before anyone gets upset at me for putting down one of childhood's favorite memories, let me confess: I always loved the Peter Pan character. One of my most treasured childhood memories is going with my grandmother to see the play starring Sandy Duncan, and the Disney version was one of my favorite movies for far longer than I'm willing to admit. (No, I never did go see the 2003 version with Jeremy Sumpter. For me, it just wasn't the same.)
The truth is, that what I call the the Peter Pan Lie doesn't really have so much to do with the plotline of Peter Pan. What it does have to do with is the one area in life where, for some reason, we think - at least subconsciously - that people really never will grow up.
I'm not quite sure why this is. But over and over again, I come across married couples who somehow expect that their spouses will never change, either internally or externally - at least not for the worse.
Let me tell you a true story and you'll see what I mean.
I know a fellow whom we'll call, for the fun of it, Peter. When Peter was a senior in college, he met a sophomore whom we'll call (what else?) Wendy. They dated for a while, saw that they had similar ideals, goals, and interests, and by the time Peter graduated they were engaged. A few months later, they were married. They even introduced me to Wendy's best friend, Katie, and we got married about two months after they did.
Peter started medical school, and Wendy finished college. They struggled financially for a few years, but they were happy. We all shared the joys and challenges of starting out in life, building homes, businesses and families.
Fast-forward ten years.
Peter is a very successful cardiologist, and the proud father of four adorable children, two girls and two boys. Wendy worked part time for a while, but eventually decided to become a full-time mom. They bought their dream house, a beautiful home in a woodsy area of the suburbs, their kids are doing great in school and Peter's practice has never been more successful.
Fast-forward another ten years.
Wendy calls me at my office, hysterical. I couldn't even recognize her voice at first. When I did, my heart began to race.
"Wendy, please, calm down. I can't understand a word you're saying. Did something happen to Peter, to one of the kids?"
When I was finally able to understand her, I wish I hadn't.
She was certain that Peter was seeing another woman.
"At first, I wasn't sure, or maybe I was trying to delude myself. I've felt for a while that he was acting distant, but thought that maybe it was just the practice that was getting to him. Heaven knows that cardiology is not the easiest profession in the world. But then he started coming home later and later. And," she swallowed hard, "he was smelling from perfume."
While as a rule, I usually don't see friends in a professional capacity, I couldn't turn Wendy down. I told her to wait until she was absolutely sure, hoping that things would work out and she would see that she'd been mistaken. Unfortunately, she wasn't, and it didn't take long before she found out for sure that Peter was seeing Amy, his 25 year old secretary. She confronted him, he admitted it, and she demanded that he come see me.
The next day, Peter was in my office. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. I pulled my chair around the other side of the desk to ease the atmosphere a bit.
Silence. Then I said quietly, "Pete, what on earth could you possibly be thinking? Why are you doing this?"
Peter took a deep breath before answering. "Listen, Mike, things just aren't the same between Wendy and me anymore."
I've heard that line so many times I could fill a book with it. "What do you mean, Pete? Has she mistreated you? Is she mean to the kids?"
"No, no, nothing like that."
"So then what?"
Pete fidgeted a bit in his seat. "She's just not the same as she used to be."
I waited for him to continue, even though I knew what was coming.
"She's not as fun as she once was. She's - I don't know how to describe it - maybe dowdyÃ¢â‚¬¦"
"A little grey, maybe her figure's not the same, she's a bit more tired, a few more lines around the eyes?" I suggested?
Pete brightened. "Yeah, that's it. That's exactly what I meant."
I looked him straight in the eye. "In other words, she's just not 25 years old anymore?" I asked pointedly.
Peter was silent.
"Pete, can I ask you something?"
"Are you the same as you were when you were 25 years old?"
He looked down.
"Pete, you know what? You're balding a bit. You're a little grey around the temples. You're not as thin and trim as you were, either. And even though I haven't seen you play tennis in a long time, I bet your game isn't the same as it used to be. Do you think Wendy should see another man because of all that?"
"It's not the same."
"It's just not. You don't know Amy. She's really special."
I rolled my eyes. "Special? Tell me something, Pete. With all due respect to whoever Amy is, has she ever had a child? Has she raised one, let alone four? Has she devoted herself to a husband and a family for 25 years? Has she enabled him to become a successful cardiologist?"
Peter didn't answer, and I didn't let up. "Do you want to know what 'special' is, Pete? I'll tell you. Wendy has been giving to you for 25 years. She's the one who's raised the kids you're so proud of all the time. She loves you so much she's willing to forgive you and move on. That's something special. And you're willing to give it all up because you fell for the Peter Pan lie?"
"I call it the Peter Pan lie. The lie that you - or, in this case, your wife - is never going to grow up, never going to grow older. I have news for you, Pete. You're almost 50. Wendy's 47. This isn't Never-Never Land. People grow up, people grow older, and you have to follow the grown up rules."
Peter looked insulted. "I know that."
"You may know it, but you're not acting like it. If you were to tell me that Wendy's been mistreating you, acting cold and mean, or even totally ignoring the way she looks and walking around the house like a shrew, I would say you have a problem. But I've seen her lately, and that doesn't seem to be the case. Is it?"
"No, of course not. She's as sweet and well-dressed as always."
"Have her values changed? Her ideals? Does she lie, does she cheat?"
"No, no way. Not Wendy."
"So what's so 'special' about Amy? Does she have those values, that dedication? I'll tell you one thing. It's true that I don't know her, but the fact that she's willing to carry on with a man she knows is married with a family doesn't say too much about her character."
Peter turned away.
"Am I wrong?""
Pete shook his head.
"So if you're married to a woman whom we both agree has values, ideals, and character, who's already proved her dedication and her love, then what in heavens do you need an Amy for?"
Pete shrugged his shoulders and looked out the window into the distance.
It was obvious he was waging a very difficult internal battle. We were getting somewhere. "So what are you going to do?" I asked.
Peter hung his head for a minute, then lifted it and said firmly, "I'm going to call it quits with Amy, apologize to Wendy and start over again. But, Mike," he said tentatively, "how am I going to do it?"
"Well, the first thing you have to do is find Amy a new job. You have to get her out of your office. It's going to be too hard having her around."
"The next thing you have to do is come to terms with the fact that, even though your name is Peter and your wife's name is Wendy, you do grow up. You need to get your mind off the externals, and focus on Wendy's internal beauty. She's a great person, Pete, and you know it. Concentrate on that, and concentrate on giving. Pay attention to her, buy her flowers, whatever. Once you focus on her real beauty - the person who she is - you'll realize that even externally, she's even more beautiful than she was at 25. Because it all depends on how you look at it. Not growing up and not growing older means not growing as a person, either. And when that happens, the externals are so superficial they're not worth it."
Pete thanked me, we shook hands and he promised to let me know how things progressed.
That was ten years ago. Last night, Katie and I went to a surprise 35th anniversary party that Peter and Wendy's kids threw for them.
Never-Never Land has nothing on real life.
Reframing Your Marriage | The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work - Part 2 | The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work | The 3 Main Challenges to Marriage - Part III | The 3 Main Challenges in Marriage - Part II | The 3 Main Challenges to Marriage - Part I | See More »