To take a step further, do you religiously follow athletes’ social media feeds and model their lifestyles? Or, feel personally betrayed by scandals involving your favorite personalities, like Adam Levine’s text messages or The Try Guys’ Ned Fulmer cheating.
If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, you might be in a parasocial relationship.
Wait, what’s that?
“Parasocial relationships are a one-sided relationship with a public figure of some kind, where the person believes there’s an actual relationship,” says Erin Rayburn, LMFT, owner, CEO, and supervising therapist at Evergreen Therapy. “It’s a personification, really.”
People can form parasocial relationships with anyone that they don’t actually know, but they’re most common with public figures, such as celebrities, musicians, athletes, and influencers. They can also occur with a whole sports team or a fictional character in a book, TV show, or movie.
“The relationships can also be formed through admiring someone from afar, like a professor, politician, clergy member, or a social media connection whom you follow or are connected with but have never actually met in real life,” says Don Grant, Ph.D., national adviser of healthy device management for Newport Healthcare.
Though they’re not real bonds or connections, experts say parasocial relationships aren’t necessarily unhealthy. Here’s why.
What is a parasocial relationship?
Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time, Grant says, “ultimately imagining a relationship with the other party who is completely unaware of their existence.” There’s also no reciprocity in the relationship.
The term “parasocial relationship” was first introduced in 1956 by researchers Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl following the rise of media like TV, radio, and movies, which they said give “the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer.”
A parasocial relationship differs from being a mega-fan, since someone actually believes they have a relationship with the public figure, Rayburn says.
The relationships also usually don’t reach the level of a celebrity stalker. “People going the directon of a stalker have an intent to follow or be a part of that person’s life,” she says. “A parasocial relationship is more imaginary or fantasy, but people don’t generally act on any kind of behaviors toward the person.”
Who’s more likely to form parasocial relationships?
That depends on the individual.
It’s human nature to crave connection. Grant says this is what leads someone into a parasocial relationship. “It’s our need for connection and belonging, and to compensate for a lack of it somewhere else in our lives.”
People who feel lonely, isolated, disconnected, or detached may be more prone to developing and maintaining parasocial relationships, he explains. The relationships are also more common with those with low attachment anxiety or limited “real” relationship connections.
People who exhibit avoidant-attachment relationship patterns might also be more likely to form a parasocial relationship, Rayburn says. This refers to people who haven’t had their emotional needs met as children and as adults become self-contained and struggle to form relationships. “They find a parasocial relationship more comfortable for them because it’s not real—it’s easier to digest,” she says.
Are parasocial relationships healthy?
There’s a fine line between a parasocial relationship being healthy versus unhealthy, Rayburn says. “Ultimately, we would like to see people have a real relationship.”
The relationships could help some people fulfill some of their loneliness and social needs if they have limited access to real-life social interaction, she says. The relationships might also be inspirational. For example, someone might start to mimic a celebrity’s healthy lifestyle to improve their own life.
“Parasocial relationships can also offer a low-key way to attach to others or feel a part of a community—like the cast of a TV show, movie, podcast, or even online forum group,” Grant says.
The relationships can enable people to form relationships without fearing rejection and help people with low self-esteem feel closer to their ideal selves, he adds. Having shared interests in a celebrity or meeting someone with their own harmless parasocial relationship with the same celebrity could help someone form real-life bonds.
Research shows that the one-sided relationships could help young people understand their identities, see themselves more positively, serve as a mentoring model, and expand social awareness. Parasocial relationships became more significant during Covid-19, when people felt isolated and lonely, saw real-life bonds severed, and used social media more, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Parasocial relationships can quickly become unhealthy, though. The feelings could progress into obsessiveness or delusion, and take time and energy away from real life, Rayburn says.
“Parasocial relationships may interfere with a person’s real-life relationships or daily life, particularly if they take the place of real-life interactions and relationships and especially if they are only based on voyeurism through social media or unhealthy or toxic online groups or platforms,” Grant says.
What to do if you have a parasocial relationship—or know someone who does.
Parasocial relationships usually aren’t dangerous, Grant says. But, you should seek mental health treatment if you:
Choose your parasocial relationship over a real-life connection
Stop pursuing opportunities to create new real-life relationships
Seek fulfillment in the parasocial relationship
Take the relationship to unrealistic or dangerous levels, such as stalking
Use all your mental energy on the parasocial relationship
Therapy can help someone understand how or why the fantasy of the parasocial relationship is soothing their emotions, and break down the delusion and develop coping skills, Rayburn says.
If someone you know forms a parasocial relationship and it seems to be interfering with their lives, causing addiction, or leading them to risky behaviors, it’s a good idea to try to talk to them. Just be compassionate and supportive, and avoid judgment.
“Someone who is in this may not like that feedback or might be defensive,” Rayburn says. “No one likes to be called out, or they might feel that their delusion is a safety blanket. It might take a few conversations.”
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