Relationship Tips

How To Identify a Parasocial Relationship, Which a Psychologist Calls a ‘Relationship of the Imagination’

Photo: Getty Images/Willie B. Thomas
Think of your celebrity or movie crush (mine is Harry Styles). Maybe you’ve daydreamed about meeting them, pretended the attraction was mutual, or done a deep dive on their Instagram profile (that's a yep, yep, and yep for me!) You're likely well aware that your celebrity crush neither returns your feelings nor even knows you exist, and you're also likely okay with that reality. However, this dynamic, which is also known as a parasocial relationship, is something mental-health experts have thoughts—and in some cases warnings—about.

Essentially, a parasocial relationship describes when one person has feelings for someone who doesn’t know or communicate back with them. “I call parasocial relationships ‘relationships of the imagination’ because they involve developing feelings toward someone you don’t have direct contact with, like a celebrity, athlete, musician, public figure, or even a fictional character,” says therapist Emily Simonian, LMFT, head of learning at nationwide therapy practice Thriveworks. The effect of this can be, adds United Kingdom-based psychotherapist Hannah Beckett-Pratt, that “one person expends considerable emotional energy, interest, and investing in the other partner” while the other does not.

“I call parasocial relationships ‘relationships of the imagination’ because they involve developing feelings toward someone you don’t have direct contact with." —Emily Simonian, LMFT

However, these relationships differ from general one-sided relationships that are more so characterized by an imbalance of attention or affection because in the case of a parasocial relationship, neither party even knows each other. In such a dynamic, we can create stories about how the other person feels about us and enjoy that sense of connection without risking rejection.

With that in mind, parasocial relationships can satisfy a whole spate of interpersonal needs a person may have. “For example, simply relating to that person, filling a social or romantic void in your life, gaining a sense of support or inspiration from that person, or having strong feelings of admiration for them,” Simonian says.

To be sure, feeling as though you know another person and their experiences just as well as you might with a friend isn't necessarily dangerous leaning activity. Where the potential psychological issue comes in, though, is when these relationships become all-consuming. “The person or celebrity can become a meaningful and leading figure in the individual’s life and can produce a set of responses that are much more complex than just simple admiration or imitation,” Beckett-Pratt says.

Is a parasocial relationship always unhealthy?

Put simply, the experts say that the healthiness (or lack thereof) of a parasocial relationship depends on its intensity. These relationships can provide familiarity and comfort (which is largely characterized as healthy) or become more rooted in life-altering behavior (likely less healthy).

“If you find yourself consumed with thoughts about that person, constantly checking social media or other news sources for information about that person, and it disrupts your daily functioning, it’s likely a sign that your thoughts and feelings could be becoming [significant],” Simonian says. “Those most at risk for getting into unhealthy parasocial relationships are people who isolate and struggle with social anxiety, phobias, or depression.”

Beckett-Pratt adds that people who have an anxious-preoccupied (also known as anxious-ambivalent) attachment style are most likely to engage in these relationships of intense one-sidedness that largely isn't reflective of the way things actually are. “This distortion impacts their understanding of the reality of the relationship, and they may believe fantasies such as, ‘If I walked through the door of my favorite celebrity’s home, they would be happy to see me,’” she says. “They are likely to avoid and become disinterested in genuine and reciprocal relationships because they already identify as being in one.”

If you find yourself in a parasocial relationship that's distorting your sense of reality, there are simple steps you can take towards building meaningful, mutual relationships. (And the same goes for the case of helping someone else in your life who ends up in a parasocial relationship). “One of the most harmful aspects of parasocial relationships is if you are no longer interacting or being relational with those around you,” Simonian says, so “ask yourself what is a comfortable first step for you to start interacting again. Is there one person you can think of that you trust to confide in or are willing to try to meet up with?”

Therapy can be a great resource to help you do just that. “Long-term psychotherapy can address the relational issues that might be underlying parasocial relationship behavior,” Beckett-Pratt says. “If the level of delusion has escalated to the extent that the person in the parasocial relationship has become detached from reality, then this is a psychiatric issue requiring medical intervention from a clinician.”

Basically, while celebrity crushes can be fun (and oftentimes not harmful to you whatsoever), it’s important to maintain our IRL relationships and grasp on reality.

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