Don’t Let Parasocial Relationships Harm Your Real World Ones

It's normal and even helpful to form relationships with public figures. But if you’re not careful, intimacy at a distance can cost you.

by Ashley Abramson
Originally Published: 

Relationships are, by nature, a two-way street. You show respect, empathy, and kindness to others, and hopefully, they’ll return the favor. That dynamic is how friendships or intimate partnerships grow over time. So what happens if you’re dedicating time and energy to someone who not only doesn’t care about you, but literally has no idea who you are?

If that’s the case, you might be in a parasocial relationship — essentially, an attachment to a comedian, a character you’ve watched on Netflix, a favorite athlete, or a public figure you follow on social media. The term “parasocial relationship” originated in the 1950s, when researchers noticed viewers had the “illusion of a face to face relationship” with people they saw on TV. Researchers have found that parasocial relationships can actually be beneficial, even boosting your self-esteem if you’re feeling down. But if you’re not careful, intimacy at a distance can cost you — and your closest in-person relationships could take a hit.

While it’s not abnormal to admire and closely follow your favorite celebrity and maybe even feel like you know them — everybody has a favorite podcast host, Netflix star, athlete, or author — parasocial relationships take it a step further. “These figures begin to be considered friends, although there has been no or limited interaction with them,” says Sara Makin, a psychotherapist in Pennsylvania.

For example, over the past few weeks, the Twitterverse has been in an ongoing state of distress about comedian John Mulaney’s divorce from his ex-wife and a new relationship with actress Olivia Munn — a sign of an unintentional attachment to him (a one-sided one at that).

According to California-based therapist Nick Bognar, it’s totally natural to take solace in the distant storyline of a public figure. It can even be helpful to project onto them a bit — for example, we might see ourselves in a public figure’s storyline and feel hopeful about what we can accomplish in our own lives (remember the Be Like Mike campaign of the 1990s?).

The danger of parasocial relationships comes if you’re not relationally fulfilled in your own life — say, if you’re lonely or feeling misunderstood. “If you feel bad about yourself, or you’re feeling lonely, it can be comforting to follow Mulaney’s journey really closely,” says Bognar. “It’s far easier to think about someone else’s super luxurious life or their fall from grace than to think about your own life.”

While there’s nothing wrong with watching someone else’s life play out from afar, investing too much of yourself in parasocial relationships isn’t without repercussions. For example, you could be using that public figure as an escape from your own problems — and missing out on dealing with real issues because of it.

According to Stefanie Juliano, a psychotherapist at NM Wellness Center and Stefanie Juliano Therapy, people who work long hours, have new babies, or are in a struggling relationship may slip into parasocial relationships more easily — at some points, to compensate for a lack of interpersonal relationships in everyday life.

We all have unique ways to cope with stress and other struggles, but too much investment in parasocial relationships can be detrimental, especially if you don’t have many meaningful relationships in your everyday life. “Following a public figure can be entertaining, and it can get us out of drudgery after a long day at work, but it’s no substitute for real relationships,” Bognar says.

For one thing, even though you feel like you totally know the guys from Stuff You Should Know or LeBron, what you hear on a podcast or see play out on social media or on TV isn’t necessarily reality. As Bognar describes it, you don’t know the person on the other side of the screen — you know a press kit or what you can infer from a few minutes on a late-night talk show. Worse? That highlight reel can never actually be there for you. “You’re using an incomplete picture of someone else to meet your emotional needs, and there’s no reciprocation.”

This might sound obvious, but it’s important to recognize. It’s easy, per Malkin, to set unrealistic expectations in parasocial relationships, and in some cases, they can negatively impact you emotionally. For example, if you read something upsetting about a public figure, you might find yourself feeling angry or even sad. And while there’s nothing wrong with some empathy, your parasocial relationship shouldn’t leave you feeling helpless or distressed or interfere with your ability to function in other ways.

On top of draining you emotionally, fixating on people you don’t know can actually harm your in-person relationships. For example, logistically speaking, if you’re spending time and energy on Twitter trying to keep up with news on a public figure, you’ll have less time for your partner and kids (and potentially, Makin says, more arguments).

Parasocial relationships can also set unhealthy standards for other areas of life, including your relationship with your spouse, kids, or friends. If Mulaney can find a supportive new partner and start a shiny new life right after he leaves rehab, then your problems should be easy to fix, right?

Or, maybe you’re using a parasocial relationship as a way to feel connected without doing the vulnerable work of connecting with your friends or your spouse. If that’s the case, Bognar encourages taking steps toward vulnerability with someone who knows you off-screen — especially your partner — even if it feels a little scary or awkward.

Real-life relationships are harder than parasocial relationships, both to build and to maintain. However, they can be reciprocal, which a parasocial relationship can never be. Real relationships also offer the opportunity to get to know someone’s actual personality, instead of a carefully pared-down and curated public persona.

“If you have some real relationships but they’re being neglected, then I recommend taking a break from media to the extent that you can and building time into your schedule to spend time with the real people in your life who matter to you,” Bognar says.

And as you invest more time and energy in your IRL relationships, consider a new approach with your media consumption, too. You don’t necessarily have to hit the “unfollow” button, but if you find yourself consumed, it may be time to scale back and switch up your focus — especially, Bognar says, if you find yourself comparing yourself to the person on the screen, you think about the person as much as, or more, than yourself or on a more extreme level, or people tell you that you are overestimating your closeness this person or these people.

“We need to be vigilant in noticing how we feel when we’re consuming media of any kind,” he says. “It might be enjoyable to watch celebrity programming, and it might even ease some feelings of loneliness for a while, but eventually, it may also lead you to feeling less-than or more isolated.”

If you start to notice the negative repercussions of a parasocial relationship, it might be time to examine why you’re so fixated on someone you don’t know and how it’s affecting your life. “Once you know yourself well enough to know what you’re feeling, then sometimes you have to exercise a little discipline and decide not to take in something that’s bad for you,” he says.

Then, find a way to get your needs met by a real person. It might not be easy to have a vulnerable conversation, but a two-way street is far more rewarding than a one-way relationship.

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