Men Who Never Grow Up – The ‘Puer Aeturnus Complex’

by Peter Milhado PHD on July 11, 2009

Puer Aeturnus is Latin for ‘Eternal Youth’.  It is a concept from the psychology of Carl Jung and applies to those men who, even though they’re in their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s have retained the emotional characteristics of an adolescent.  Many of these men, referred to as Puers from now on, had fathers who were partially or totally absent.  Others had fathers who were weak and passive, which left the upbringing to the mother.  All Puers have an inappropriately strong tie to the mother, positive or negative.  If there is no essential differentiation from the mother, there is no masculinity.  A sense of masculinity has to be won by struggle; it is not a birthright!  This is done by taking a stand, overcoming inertia, deciding and acting more, reading and knowing more, by gaining muscle and gaining competence in the world of men (Hillman).  Puers are known for their wandering, their many relationships and sometimes Don Juanisms.  This has to do with seeking the perfect mother in every woman who will give them everything- always to be disappointed.  They are drawn to women who will admiringly reflect and not disturb their narcissistic self-image.  When the ‘in love’ stage is over and the Puer discovers that the woman is not a ‘goddess’, but quite mortal and human, the fascination with her vanishes.  The ‘goddess’ of old is now seen as a devouring and cold witch who wants to enslave him.   Events get even more complicated when the projection fits.  Many Puers are charming and attractive, but there is also a concealed sadistic streak one would hardly guess  was there until it strikes- many women will attest to that.  Charm might make a great first impression, but intimacy, commitment and involvement are needed in relationship.  The more excessive the Puer’s ‘nice guy’ and charming Persona, the more brutal and cold becomes his shadow.  At parties he stays long enough to enthrall and perhaps make a castrating remark to the man of the house before he exits.
The Puer’s main pursuit in life is ecstasy, many times at the expense of everything else.  This can be externalized in a highly symbolic fashion in fascination with flying or climbing mountains.  Many Puers hang out on ski slopes and racetracks.  Many are drawn to drinking, gambling, pornography and drugs to get that rush.

The Puer is impulsive and impatient, has a low frustration tolerance and does not reflect.  He isn’t only threatened by aging, but also by self-discipline, patience, duty, endurance and accepting limitations.  There is no time for standing still, tolerating conflict and solving problems.  He has to be on the move “where the action is”.  He does not like tasks requiring long preparations and training.  He can work, but only in a state of enthusiasm.  When he meets with routine, boredom or tediousness, which are part of every career, he usually quits and takes flight.  He can’t make a commitment in any part of his life.  Action is his fate rather than reflection. Marie Luise von Franz felt that underneath this relentless pursuit of ecstasy is either a need to return to the womb of unconditional love and bliss provided by mother or a secret longing for a religious experience.  One can find many Puers in  different religious settings in today’s spiritual supermarket.  Hillman, on the other hand, felt the Puer’s relentless wandering is a longing for the father and fathering.

Problems also arise when adapting to society.  The Puer envisions himself as a bringer of meaning, rather than one who has to adapt.  Hillman asks “The Puer may give us a sign, point the way, but will he give us a hand?”  The inflated feelings of being superior, along with arrogance and defiance lead to difficulties at work and in relationships.  Quite a few Puers don’t make it to mid-life; many of them die early in the ‘fast lane’ of drugs or impulsive adventure.  Some get lost in religious militancy or sell out to the ‘company’.  Still others flip over and surrender their individuality to clubs and organizations like the local softball team, the Elks, the Glee club or Alcoholics Anonymous.  Without consciousness, men with a Puer Aeternus complex always become victims to their impulsiveness and self-destructiveness or collective movements like pathological materialism; political extremism or religious fanaticism sweep them up.

It needs to be emphasized that the Puer suffers from a most painful and despairing condition.  To be on a never ending journey without a home, to pursue thrills and pleasures relentlessly at the expense of everything and everyone else, to impulsively defy society and women and yet need them desperately, to pay the price that lack of intimacy and commitment demands, to hungrily want success and not attain it, all leads to acute suffering and intense loneliness.  As nature is much kinder towards excessive indulgences, impulsiveness, and unconsciousness in youth, it is not until the middle of life that the Puer’s life becomes problematic.  The quest for euphoria always alternates with it’s opposite, namely dark and sinister moods of depression, irrational fears, physical breakdown or hypochondriasis.  After pride and arrogance, always come despair and depression.  It is in midlife that we get punished by our sins, not for them.  Hillman  feels the cure of the Puer lies in decay and in consciously facing wastage, affliction and moral horror.  The Puer needs to confront his need for immediate gratification, his inflatedness, his self-destructive and strong dependencies, which he denies.

One the positive side, the Puer’s willingness to begin anew, take risks, his spontaneity, potential creativity, childlikeness can be helpful, if he can harness this energy consciously and ethically.  The Puer archetype carries the hope of the ever-present potential of beginning anew.  We do not want to clip the wings of the Puer energy, it can serve all of us.  There are other men who are totally passive and have no fire at all and one wishes that somehow a ‘Puer spark’ would ignite some form of action and wake them from their pathetic slumber.

One for all and all for one.

Dr. Peter Milhado – Copyright © 2009

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Milhado PHD April 27, 2013 at 3:35 pm

JAWOHL

Maple May 9, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I fell in love with a Puer when I was 26 (now 30)…I am still in love with him, although we do not have much contact anymore. His father left he and his mother when he was 7. He talks about hating his father and carries that pain still to this day…he is almost 33. He is a drug addict and alcoholic. He is beautiful to the eyes and breaks many hearts. He sucked me in and made me feel like the most important and beautiful person in the world, and then BAM he turned a cold shoulder when things got a little complicated. He formed an emotional attachment to me b/c I remind him of his mother…whom he professes to love very deeply. I am a single mom, and he wants to take care of me…but he just can’t. He can’t bring himself to get close to me for very long. He is scared and his walls are high and thick. I’m having trouble moving on, but I find comfort knowing that its not personal…it’s not me…it’s him.

GO1984 June 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm

Man kids refuse to deal with the evils with growing up so to stay eternally young and be forever free of adult immorality.

Amy July 26, 2013 at 10:58 pm

this is a perfect description of someone who keeps falling for women he wants to protray as his one and only final mother, so that he can FINALLY grow up. I was married to one, and although put on a pedestal for a very long time, one day, I looked down and saw that my Peur really did believe I was his mother. At that point, I could no longer be his wife.

fall September 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm

This fits a perfect description of the man I am in love with for the past 3 yrs…..he can not commit to marriage or engagement….after many months of research I realized he is probably NPD….now, I see he fits the PUER description as well. Thank you for this article! MUCH needed!!! I cannot walk away……yet

Maggie Brady September 21, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Dear Dr. Mihado,
I appreciate your article. I am a therapist myself, and had recognized my boyfriend as a Puer, but a m ore “recovered” one I had thought, as he went to prison for his compulsion adventures 20 years ago which derailed all that was precious to him, and he seemed truly humble having been through “decay” as you call it, and asserted ove rand over wanting a more settled domestic life, with me, now at 64. He is 15 years older than me, seemed to have a very clear sense of who I was and what I wanted, and seemed to be making very conscious decision to commit to me and building a life together. We had an amazing wondrous 6 months with more commitment focus from him than me. But once I started asking him to be a bit more accountable (has like 3 crazy jobs, didn’t call when promised, would cancel last minute) he became extremely uncomfortable. This erupted in his letting an ex girlfriend (don’t feel they were erotic) who was angry at my presence in and out of his apt to use things there. He started saying we are “culturally too different” that he is ‘more European” and looser w/ time/culture etc. I was not willing to accept his behavior and move forward, even though he continued to talk true love and commitment, to join our families and children, to plan a fture with me… but the “disappearing” action continued. Finally, after I more seriously confronted him and said I don’t know that I can go on w/ his not working harder on his hurtful behavior, he said he thinks he made a mistake, he’s not actually so cut out for a domestic life, doesn’t care about his home at all, or making a home with someone, and wants to go to Africa to take care of homeless kids, that settling down is “not in my DNA, even though if I had any sense at all I would pick you 100%.” We have for sure been deeply in love and joined a lot of parts of our life- I feel my heart has been shattered into 100 pieces. I am in shock at how cold and unemotional he is all of a sudden in 1 week’s time. Even the therapist we saw said wow in the past week he just turned a switch and become totally A-emotional. It is just staggering the pain I feel. I am trying to stay strong and get back to my own self and life which I admittedly had started to build around him being so deeply in love. Today he sent a message saying “it is killing me how much pain and loss of trust I have caused and I am so confused by it” but he also holds that he’s “basically a happy guy and don’t need to change myself or my life..”
This has shocked all who felt from what he said and how he ws w/ me that he would fight heaven and earth to be with me. But now it’s like this pathologically cut off divestment . I am reeling. Thanks for letting me share.

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Ellie November 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm

My partner fits the description exactly! His father walked out when he was a teen and his life stopped there. He went from being a good student to flunking all his GCSEs, started smoking weed, left school and bounced from one dead end job to another whilst living at home with his mum (who he has a lot of anger towards for some reason). He lacks the ability to think things through, plan ahead or talk to people without getting into an argument (we assumed this was ADHD). He is confused about his gender (cross-dresses and sometimes says he wants to be a woman, but then decides he doesn’t, but doesn’t know how to be a man). His finances were a total mess when I met him (he didn’t see the point of saving or getting a pension and considered money as ‘evil’) and he lived for video games, comics, sweets and pornography. His alcohol consumption was very unhealthy too. His idol is superman and he says he has ongoing dreams of flying in the sky and saving the world.

I forced him to move out of his mum’s house and rent with me (a terrifying ordeal for him, but he did it), and we have continued education together (he will graduate in a year). I have also encouraged him to seek out male friends, as he only felt happy around women before, and he has become more comfortable in himself as a result. I have never discouraged the cross-dressing and never made a big deal out of it, but he has chosen to do it less often since his confidence has grown. He has also taken on big community projects that boosted his ego.

It was very much a mother-son type of relationship at first, but I realised the more I encouraged him to move through each of the stages of adolescence that he missed out on, the more of an equal he would become. Our relationship is now much better because of it. There are still times where he will be filled with self-doubt and question his identity, but he has stopped drinking, studies, completes things, has saved towards a house deposit and has a much better attitude towards women. I think the ultimate difference will be when he graduates and realises just how far he has come!

Michael Burns November 12, 2013 at 11:50 am

The problem with man is not the death and destruction that he brings to the world. That in time will heal. They are simple scars upon a body. It is not even his arrogance that he thinks he is the chosen of God, and that that is his right that he own this Universe. It is in fact his narcissism; his twisted and perverted self-love that is his downfall, his so easily acquired willingness to label himself and others. To label himself above the rest; and those not of his kind, he places them in his Darwinian box on a shelf. And it is through that very act that he looses his power, his true power…and maybe in a sense, that is a sign, if he looks at were his master points, to within the shadow side, of a possible direction he might need to go himself. There is no country for old men, but the stars await the eternal child.
And so I would appeal to you to enter through that door, and into that new country and read above the lintel as you pass through the eternal words ‘Pax Intrantibus’.

I expect this will not go past your recycle bin.

Michael Burns

Gale November 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm

This almost fits the description of Mihaly, the protagonist in “Journey by Moonlight”, a novel by the great Hungarian author, Antal Szerb.

tricia January 22, 2014 at 10:09 am

i met and married a man over 2 years ago and it ended with him prefering to scan the internet talking and flirting with other women than our marraige. he had no remorse for what he had done in the end he had three women on the go and he was prepered to do anything to get that thrill..he was without his father from about 8 years old.he appeared to display two personalities, one very excitable and the other almost manic depressive..i later realised that he had been in and out of relationships all his life since a teenager and had a very strong willingness to please mummy or for me to do things like his mother. although devasted by the outcome of this, i am now more at peace with it all…..hope he finds help one day!…

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