Today I want to talk about parasocial relationships. What are those? Well, parasocial relationships are entirely one-sided relationships — ones in which one party is interested and invests significant time and energy in someone and that other party is completely unaware of their existence.
Wow. Okay. Sounds intense, right? Creepy maybe?
Nah. It’s actually normal. We form parasocial relationships all the time when it comes to celebrities (and even fictional characters or a role played by an actor). In fact, psychologists consider it basically inevitable when we are shown someone — even virtually through audio, video, or even text — because we’re wired to bond with other people.
I find parasocial relationships personally fascinating. At this point, I’ve spent some time on both sides of them. Through my work as a writer I’ve had readers who became big supporters of mine seemingly out of nowhere (since they’d followed me for years and never said anything). Sometimes I go to big conventions (or did pre-COVID at least), and I’ll meet people I’ve never met before (or never even corresponded with via email) who are super excited to meet me.
It’s a really interesting experience. Flattering — although hard to get used to. You never quite know what work they’ve read or why they follow you. And you certainly don’t know much about them, at least not at first.
That said, I do have a few friends at this time who started out primarily as readers, which is cool.
Most of the time, however, I do keep my friendships separate from my work. For example, I don’t tell new potential friends about my website or what exactly it is I do for a living (aside from the fact that I write).
It actually caused hilarity when I moved to a new area a few years back, and a new friend realized I was Omg THAT PAGE who OMG runs Poly Land (they were familiar with the site and had heard of me). I laughed at their reaction, and they said, “Well, it’s quite a surprise. You don’t act famous.” Which I thought was hilarious because what even is acting famous?
(Not to mention the fact that I have a following but I’m not… say, J. Lo. or Ariana Grande or someone who is capital-F Famous, a household name.)
Parasocial Relationships Are a Weird Foundation for a Later Romantic Relationship
It’s funny… because a lot of otherwise very uptight, conservative people (my parents spring immediately to mind) will have a “celebrity exemption” to their monogamous relationships. For example, if either Sandra Bullock or Mel Gibson (that choice hasn’t aged well, Mom) had shown up in seduction mode, my parents’ marriage would have been open at least temporarily.
Cheesy maybe, but it’s so common it’s basically a cliche. But it’s actually not what it’s cracked up to be: Dating a former fan when you’re a celebrity to them is incredibly weird. Take it from me. The preexisting parasocial relationship is weird and doesn’t always transition smoothly to one that involves mutual interaction.
I tried dating a reader who was a really big fan of mine once — and only because they entered my life through someone else I knew and I really liked them. I tried my best, but it was a mess. The preexisting parasocial relationship actually hindered us when we tried to have a romantic relationship. They had me up on a pedestal, and it was very hard for me — a flesh and blood person — to keep up with the online persona they’d fallen in love with. Even though I try very hard to be authentic in my work, they had built up an image that departed from what I’d actually said — and indeed independent of who I am — and it kept getting in the way of us building something meaningful together.
Nothing has ever killed my “what would it be like to date XYZ celebrity?” fantasies faster than being the “celebrity” in question and finding it made everything more awkward.
Because I’ve been on the other side of parasocial relationships myself of course. I have a number of authors I look up to and Youtubers that I watch (either directly seeking out their content or via my partner, when they put things on the television). I know it’s silly, but I almost feel as though I know them. And I’m sure I would get excited if I ever had the opportunity to meet them in person.
But the time when I could seriously entertain dating a celebrity that I had a strong parasocial relationship with has probably passed.
Unless of course, they had a parasocial relationship with me, too. Perhaps if we were fans of one another from afar, admiring at a distance as strangers, maybe then that might work out.
But it’s even odds that it’d be even weirder.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.