What Are 'Parasocial Relationships' (And How Could COVID-19 Have Affected Yours)?

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What are parasocial relationships, and why are they so powerful? More importantly, can you benefit from them, especially when you're isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A parasocial relationship is a relationship or friendship that you have with someone who's unaware of the fact that you have it. These relationships can happen between mere mortals and celebrities, like actors, actresses, bloggers, or news anchors.

Parasocial relationships can feel as intense and real as the relationship you have with a friend. Sometimes, they feel even more powerful than the regular thing!

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Parasocial relationships serve a purpose in the human psyche. 

And during COVID-19, that purpose may be intensified. 

I dare to say that COVID-19 may be changing your parasocial relationships in ways you've never imagined. Lately, people have been developing deep "bonds" with athletes or with chefs they watch cooking daily on TV.

One of the experiences human beings hate the most is rejection. It feels like dismissal and abandonment. And abandonment, as the mental health field knows, is one of the situations in life that brings immense pain and mental anguish.

Parasocial relationships have an inherent great virtue: The person you have a relationship with doesn't even know you're there, so there's no risk of abandonment. Or, they're minimally aware of your presence, such as in the case of athletes.

The important point is that non-acceptance is barely a possibility when it comes to celebrities.

Young teenagers are experts at having parasocial relationships.

These relationships help them practice for complementary ones, in which you do have chances of disappointment.

But it's not just teenagers who have these one-sided relationships.

Some famous figures like Oprah make a parasocial contact almost unavoidable. Her down-to-earth charisma makes it almost impossible not to feel like she's your personal friend.

Years ago, the mental health field regarded parasocial relationships with suspicion. It was believed that those who had them were timid or could not face the challenges brought by real connections.

These days, however, the field thinks differently.

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Mental health professionals are aware that parasocial relationships can be very beneficial.

These connections have some similarities with the real thing.

In both cases, there's a need for constancy. And just like with flesh-and-bones friends, in these cases, these one-sided friendships help people in their daily living.

They provide companionship, expert advice, and, many times, they shape the identity of the viewer by offering examples that the viewer follows. Inspiration mediates these non-traditional friendships.

During COVID times, parasocial relationships are even more important than usual.

Your relationships may have changed these last months. You don't get to see your flesh-and-blood friends so often.

So, COVID-19 might have enhanced the importance of parasocial relationships in your life. You may have developed some that you didn't have before, and are now eager to create others.

Many people who were out and about doing their thing are stuck in their homes with their routines disrupted. Parasocial relationships are convenient and productive.

Do the following describe you at the moment?

  • You feel that Oprah or some other celebrities are your best friends.
  • A celebrity speaks as if they know you.
  • You're eager to see a cooking show, because this chef seems to be teaching only you. You feel like he's your personal friend, who tells you, "Do me a favor. Don't worry or judge yourself harshly. Just go with the flow."

COVID-19 pandemic times are exceptional. They call for exceptional measures in order for us to make it during daily living. Parasocial connections may be one of those measures.

So, please, don't feel like you're wasting time watching a certain TV show or following a certain celebrity on social media. You'll know when it's too much and when you're wasting your time. And if you are, ask for help!

Don't forget that parasocial relationships can lead to or enhance real, complementary ones.

How? You now have a well of new knowledge that you learned from your one-sided friendship that you could share with the more traditional attachments in your life.

Go for it, and enjoy it!

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Iréné Celcer is a psychotherapist and an author working and living in Atlanta GA, USA and in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For more information, visit her website.