Parasocial Relationships May Seem Strange But Are Really Quite Normal

Despite the fact that you've likely never heard the term, parasocial relationships are more common than you might think. Here's the DL on this one-sided affair.

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When I first came across the concept of a parasocial relationship, my initial thought was, "Oh, like the one I'm in with Timothée Chalamet!" I've never met him, I doubt I ever will, but thanks to the movies I've seen and his social media presence, I feel like I can say, without a doubt, he's a great guy. Like, a really great guy. The kind of guy you want to date — okay, that I want to date — and not just because he's fluent in French, has dreamy wavy hair, or a chin that can cut diamonds, but because he comes off as relatable, real, and in a world of so many unreal famous people, he just seems extremely human. In other words, he's a catch and our parasocial relationship is going very well, thank you so much for asking.

From the onset, that paragraph might have people questioning my sanity. But who hasn't had a crush on a celebrity, a news broadcaster, or in the age of social media, an influencer? When we're constantly being given a front-row seat into people's personal lives thanks to social media platforms like Instagram, it's hard not to feel like you know someone intimately despite the fact that you don't know them at all.

But the best part about a parasocial relationship is that it's normal, safe, and actually serves a purpose. Here's what you need to know.

What Is a Parasocial Relationship?

The term "parasocial interaction" first made its way into psychological circles in 1956 when social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl wrote about the phenomenon for Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes. At the time, television was still relatively new, and what they witnessed was the connection that the spectators and audiences had for the performers on TV. Some of the people viewing these programs, especially on a regular basis, created an illusion of intimacy that Horton and Wohl eventually defined as a "parasocial relationship."

"Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one individual will extend their time, energy, and emotional interest, and the other individual is usually unaware of the other's existence," says Sabrina Romanoff, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University. "These relationships tend to occur with celebrities, particularly ones who have long-running television shows, or influencers who post content all day long." They can both be romantic in nature or platonic.

Consuming all this material can lead you to think you know the person in question on a personal and private level, explains Romanoff. Such insight into one's life can lead to the development of a "deep bond with the character or persona they've spent years watching, growing with, learning from, or feeling romantically pulled towards." (

Why Do Parasocial Relationships Happen?

While it might be easy to say, "well, look at Timothée's hair and that explains it all," for those who are deeply invested in their parasocial relationships, it's not so simple. How parasocial relationships develop and what goes on in someone's brain and body during this sort of relationship hasn't been 100 percent figured out just yet.

"There isn't ample research on this topic," says Shagoon Maurya, a psychologist, psychotherapist, and founder of SafeSpace. "It has been found that similar psychological responses are at work in parasocial relationships as well as face-to-face relationships. However, the parasocial relationship doesn't follow the long-term process of a typical relationship as the user would always remain a stranger to the 'persona' and this strangeness gradually evaporates into typical social interaction."

For some people, these relationships give them something they feel they're missing in their lives, while for others there's safety in it. If one is in a relationship, at least in their mind, with someone who doesn't even know they exist, that person can't ever break your heart. Instead, you're in the driver's seat; you're the one who can end the relationship at any time.

"For many, the one-sided aspect of these relationships actually serves as a reprieve from real-life, challenging, draining, or complicated relationships," says Dr. Romanoff. "Parasocial relationships provide the opportunity for a person to project their fantasy onto a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of a person, without facing the possibility of having that fantasy fragmented by being confronted with the reality of the person."

Someone who's truly devoted to these types of relationships will make time throughout the day to be with their partner through Instagram, interviews, watching movies they're in, or digging through YouTube clips to find television appearances. (

"Through the breadth and depth of these contacts throughout the day, people develop the illusion of intimacy with this person, and begin to believe that their connection is reciprocal, meaning the celebrity knows and accepts them personally," says Dr. Romanoff. "Knowing the celebrity so intensely causes folks to believe that the celebrity must have reciprocal feelings toward them, which negates the chance for rejection in their minds."

If you're the type of person who's been burned multiple times or haven't had the best luck with IRL relationships, then a parasocial one can put your mind at ease. Besides, there's nothing wrong with crushing on someone and gushing over them if it's not hurting anyone.

Are Parasocial Relationships Healthy?

Absolutely! As long as you don't reach the point where you're doing anything to endanger yourself or the other person in the parasocial relationship, you may find some intriguing benefits through these relationships, say experts.

"Despite the stigma that some people associate with parasocial connections, they are a vital and natural part of life, particularly for adolescents," says Lauren Cook-McKay, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Divorce Answers. "In reality, this kind of relationship can be beneficial to a person… people can create connections without worrying about being easily discarded. Furthermore, because these connections are one-sided, a non-celebrity can easily quit the friendship with the celebrity at any time without fear of consequences." Like when I broke up with Taika Waititi six months ago.

Just think about all the hardcore crushes you had in your adolescence. Whether it was on a celebrity or someone you actually went to school with, but never once exchanged a single word. In both cases, you had a reason to want to go to school or to watch the same movie over and over again — you were smitten with an illusion and that's half the fun when it comes to crushes.

"Despite the one-sided aspect of these relationships, there are many connections between them and traditional social bonds," says Dr. Romanoff. "For example, parasocial relationships are deliberate, afford a sense of camaraderie, and are motivated by social desirability and fascination. People in these relationships also might experience positive emotions like gratitude, encouragement, or faithfulness toward them — ultimately feeling appreciation for helping them through difficulties."

How to Navigate a Parasocial Relationship

To be clear, these connections aren't based on reality.

So, while parasocial relationships may have their benefits, sometimes the lines between fantasy and real-life can get blurred, especially if someone is experiencing things that are making them feel extra lonely, vulnerable, or not able to see clearly. A parasocial relationship should be enjoyable, but there should also be a level of understanding of what's real and what's not, and how you can make that work for you.

"Try to utilize the positive aspects of these relationships to help you grow and learn as a person," says Dr. Romanoff. "Try to identify the attributes or characteristics that pull you toward this person, they will signal things in yourself you may want to improve or work on. Additionally, consider the ways in which you want to shape your identity that is similar to this person, and try to use your fascination toward this person as a compass, for what might be missing or under-cultured in yourself."

However, if you feel like your parasocial relationship is getting away from you and you're losing control, there are ways in which you can rein it back in, starting with understanding what it was in you that led you to form this relationship with this particular person in the first place and recognizing that you've taken things further than what constitutes a parasocial relationship. (

"It could become unhealthy in the sense that such 'fans' who consider themselves in a relationship with their idol might start disrupting their idol's lives by stalking them or sending them hate mail if they get in a real relationship with someone else," says Maurya. "It can even be potentially unhealthy for you if this relationship starts blurring the line between reality and fiction for you, and you just want to be in a real relationship with your idol, at any cost."

Parasocial relationships are meant to give you a break from your real life, offer something you don't have in the day-to-day, and excite you. They're not meant to cross over into a danger zone, such as stalking or being angered by the real-life relationships of your crush. (There's also: How Celebrity Social Media Affects Your Body Image)

"Understanding this can help you identify things that you might be lacking and once you're able to identify that, you would be able to improve yourself as well as work on reducing the intensity of this relationship," says Maurya.

Another way to get a handle on the situation is to limit your media consumption of this person.

"This will help you to monitor and lessen the content that you consume with your idol in it which will help regulate this relationship that you developed," says Maurya. Adding that watching other things, things that don't include the "persona" to whom you're drawn, is the "equivalent of getting in a new relationship once you have a breakup to get over it." And we all know that when it comes to any breakup, the best thing you can do is cut all ties with your ex — especially your social media intake of them.

Similar to great films or amazing books, parasocial relationships allow you to take a step outside of your day-to-day reality and get lost in something else. Celebrities, fictional characters (I'm looking at you, Mr. Darcy!), or even some random person we follow on Twitter can give that to us and there's nothing wrong with it. There should be no shame in fantastical daydreaming. So, enjoy all the parasocial relationships you want. But remember, I'm dating Timothée — so while I'm willing to share, we should probably come up with a schedule.

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