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Parasocial Relationships: One-Sided Love From Both Parties

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at VCU chapter.

You’ve had a long day and you see that your significant other is starting a call. They had just finished a show about an hour ago and they’re tired but still willing to talk. You’ve been dating for quite some time, but it has only been a long distance from the beginning. They spent the call talking about how their show went, their weekend plans, and casually mentioning that they’re going to Milan for the Gucci show at fashion week. You end the call with them saying I love you before they go to click the X on top of the screen, ending their Instagram live. Leaving you to sit with the reality of the dynamic of your relationship. 

Parasocial relationships are defined to be a connection of emotional energy, time, and money with someone who doesn’t reciprocate or engage in that connection. In other words, a one-sided relationship found to mostly be with those in entertainment. The meet-cute would be media, where the media user takes a liking and develops illusions of friendships and intimacy. Media helps the user learn more about their “significant other” teaching them about their hobbies, hardships, and character allowing a sense of emotional connection. These relationships can last a lifetime or a couple of months. Since it depends on the media user, the duration of the relationship is as long as the media personality remains in the public eye.

Having someone fall in love with you can be a beautiful thing. Being seen in a positive light and getting that constant support from them is rewarding and a great thing to experience. However, this might look different if this is coming from someone you have never seen and will never engage with. From the perspective of the media personality, what do these parasocial relationships look like? Most likely aware of the situation, celebrities can take three routes in this relationship: acknowledge it, ignore it, and entertain it. 

Many media personalities understand the situation they are in, having a big following, and that their fans/followers can form a one-sided connection with them. They most likely appreciate this all while keeping boundaries understanding that this relationship stems from the fan. However sometimes when acknowledging the relationship it can benefit both sides. When diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Andrew McMahon revealed that many fans reached out, giving him a sense of love. “It was like, wow, there were people willing me back to life.”  

Those who choose to ignore, presumably keep an arm’s length from parasocial relationships, creating boundaries and taking precautions to protect their private lives and mental health. The decision to ignore it might not be right away, some have been exposed to fans that make them decide taking a step back might be the best thing. An OnlyFans creator, Sarah revealed that she took a month off when she received a DM in which a fan expressed their disappointment with her. “I’ve been here for you since day one. You only talk to me when it’s convenient for you. I guess you never cared about me at all” (Dawson 2022). 

Entertainment is a scary place, known to be crucial to those in it and out. Fitting in the category of entertaining these relationships, some celebrities take advantage of their fans understanding of how they view them, as well as their dynamic. Also, there are some profits in parasocial relationships in terms of money. K-pop entertainment companies recognize the relationship between the fans and the artists and build a structure to help fuel the relationship. Using media as leverage, K-pop idols constantly release content for their fans ranging from music comebacks, variety shows, concert footage, text messages, and livestreams. To add to the fuel, many companies push their artists to create the image of being their fans’ significant others, allowing them to fall more in love. With the relationships formed fans help the companies and their artists by buying into whatever the idol sells, stream music, etc. 

Like in any relationship, it can affect your behavior in either positive or negative ways. In this situation, the behavior of the fans is influenced by the relationship causing them to play with their sense of identity. Playing with one’s sense of identity in a parasocial relationship can have some positive effects for some. One can gain emotional support, enjoyment, and a sense of belonging. Many of these media personalities offer them a distraction from their stress or loneliness creating a stronger bond. These media personalities can be inspirational role models, allowing them to better themselves just as one would in a healthy relationship. “We find people, characters and stories, whatever it is to emulate and to take attributes from and to sort of use as inspiration” Lynn Zubernis, a clinical psychologist, and Supernatural fan states.

In a negative light, these parasocial relationships can give fans unrealistic expectations of said celebrity, causing their reality to shatter. “If the celebrity is behaving in a way that the fans perceive as a kind of betrayal, that becomes a very contentious thing,” writes Rebecca Tukachinsky Forester, the author of Parasocial Romantic Relationships: Falling in Love with Media Figures (Dawson 2022). Many K-pop idols keep their relationships private, and many companies pay off tabloids to keep their idol’s relationships private. One reason could be to protect their significant others but the main reason being to protect the image of their artists. When their relationships are brought to light, many fans lash out in hate, threatening to leave the fandom. Fans can neglect their real-life relationships, isolating themselves from the important people in their lives. Not only neglect real-life relationships, fans can neglect smart decisions with their money. “The desire to financially support can become part of a contract of investment into the relationship.” The need to always see this celebrity may lead to media addiction and/or take a violent turn.  

In the world of media, it is impossible to say that one day parasocial relationships will fizzle out. There will always be something new that can be a comfort to someone, regardless if it is a celebrity or a TV show character, someone or something will bring comfort to someone. Both possessing good and bad factors, it is hard for one to determine where it lies in terms of ethics. It all comes down to how the fan and celebrity live in the relationship. Ideally, it is best to be in a safe environment and essentially benefit from the relationship. 

Samah Elhassan is a writer at the Her Campus at VCU and she is very eager to share her ideas and broaden her skills in writing. She is currently a senior who is majoring in biomedical engineering. She loves the idea of using biomedical sciences to help improve the lives of others. Although this is her last year she is still eager to learn more within the field. In her free time, Samah likes to watch movies, hang out with friends, and play games. She doesn't have a favorite movie but tends to recommend Perfect Blue to anyone who asks. One fun fact about Samah is that she likes to crochet. She has made scarves and table clothes for friends and hopes to crochet clothes in the future.