Why Celebrity Breakups Can Feel Just As Painful As Our Own


This week has been a rough one. Ever since Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt announced their divorce after two years of marriage and 12 years as a couple, the world has never been the same.

Anyone who has followed their relationship since Pitt broke up with Jennifer Aniston back in 2004 is sure to be hurting at least a little bit.

Their relationship and breakup (both Brangelina and Brennifer) are the perfect examples of how ingrained parasocial relationships, or one-sided relationships with celebrities, are in our culture.

And there's actually a science-backed reason for why we get so upset over celebrity breakups.

The more we look into the lives of public figures, the more attached we become.

We have an innate need to connect, and celebrities fulfill that need for many people.

As silly as you might think it is (because we literally don't know them on a personal level), a foundation of trust exists between fans and celebrities.

We trusted Brangelina to stay together, whether you like to admit it or not.

We were rooting for them. We were emotionally invested to some degree, and their split actually impacted our feelings.

And it wasn't just the feelings of normal people that were hurt. It was the feelings of other celebrities, too. Chrissy Teigen summed it up perfectly:

The theory of parasocial relationships has been around since the 1950s when television was born, but with the development of social media, it's on a whole new level.

A Rochester Institute of Technology study of parasocial relationships from 2011 evaluated a sample of college students' social media behavior and the levels of emotional attachment to celebrities.

Christine Phelps, the author of the study, said,

Overall, the level of interest a consumer had with a [celebrity] was the aspect of parasocial relationships that most strongly determined their level of participation in [social media].

Some people get much more into it than others.

My aunt and I are really upset over Bragelina — Justine (@justinejuanico) September 20, 2016

But the author also pointed out that the more a celebrity lets us in, the more the trust grows.

Basically, it's on the celebrity to build these relationships with fans. They have the power.

Since the study consisted of a small sample of students who self-reported on their social media behavior, more research definitely needs to be done.

The more a celebrity lets us in, the more the trust grows.

But the author noted that future research could shed light on whether or not these relationships replace legitimate ones.

She said,

Researchers could explore the topic of anxiety toward interpersonal relationships and whether or not parasocial relationships fostered by [social media] serve as alternatives to interpersonal relationships, or if they help reduce the anxiety due to their resemblance to interpersonal relationships.

This idea was really interesting to us. So, we reached out to New York-based relationship and etiquette expert and author April Masini to see what she thought about the possibility of parasocial relationships replacing real ones.

First, I asked her if it's possible that we use celebrity relationships to fill a void in our own lives.

She said,

Taking an interest in human behavior doesn't have to be salacious or negative. It can just be curiosity. The reality is that we're all scientists in the work-in-progress that is our own relationships, and when we see something in someone else's relationship that serves us — either by validating what we suspected or offering a new route to take — we find value. So, while every day can be seen as a void, it's also a real-life science lab. And when a family with six kids, some adopted, some biological, finds itself in the news because of a divorce, it's interesting. We all know people going through divorce with family, and we check ourselves against what we read about these public figures going through the same things.

Raise your hand if you compare celebrity relationships to your own.

I definitely do, especially when it comes to celebrity families I admire. It's no secret that I wish I could be adopted into Chris Pratt's family.

Even if you're someone who says they don't care about the lives of celebrities, relationships are something we all experience.

Famous or not, it's still interesting. Curiosity is part of human nature.

We also asked her if feeling upset over a celebrity breakup is a sign something in our own lives needs attention.

While it may not indicate something is wrong in our own lives, Masini said these milestone events in the lives of celebrities trigger our own experiences.

We relate to them, so don't worry if you feel weirdly invested.

She said,

Celebrity life humanizes a lot of traumatic processes that 'civilians' go through, like divorce, death, drug overdoses, illness and more. Civilians are going to be feeling sad because the media is triggering personal feelings about the vulnerability of any marriage and family.

It's human to feel sad over a celebrity breakup.

Even though the theory of parasocial relationships has existed for over 70 years, there's another reason we're more invested now than ever.

Masini pointed out it's common in 2016 to have relationships with people you've never met in person.

This could be an online relationship with someone who lives far away or a friend you make on Instagram. These relationships can grow strong, even if you never meet them.

This type of parasocial relationship didn't exist before the internet was a thing.

Masini herself sees this up close and personal in the relationship advice forum she has.

This is a derivation of the parasocial relationship that's intended to be between 'civilian' and media stars. But the dynamic is not that different because in traditional parasocial relationships, the couples don't meet. In these online internet relationships, they don't meet, either.

She noted that celebrity relationships (and following their lives in general) make us feel like we're a part of something bigger.

There's a feeling of not being alone when you have a relationship with a celebrity or someone you connect with daily, but never kiss, eat dinner with or sleep next to. And the extent to which people will go to not be alone is what's interesting. We have an innate need to connect, and celebrities fulfill that need for many people.

Next time you feel like you've caught feelings for a celebrity couple, don't stress over it.

It's completely normal to be curious and interested in what they're doing with their lives.

Citations: Parasocial relationships and social media usage (RIT)