How parasocial relationships changed my life.

I recently started watching the Starz show Outlander. It’s silly to admit, but watching the show changed my perspective on life. 

As a kid, I didn’t really travel much. I never even left the continent until two years ago when I flew to England to visit my boyfriend. At the time, he was studying law in a mid-sized city called Leicester. 

Street in Leicester, UK

I still remember stepping off the plane and experiencing everything for the first time. It would not be an overstatement to say that it was love at first sight.

Despite the sheer physical exhaustion from getting off an eight-hour red-eye flight and a subsequent two-hour train ride, I stared around in amazement at my new surroundings. From the architecture to the accents, and everything in between, I was awestruck. But not for the reason you would think.

It almost felt like I was coming home. 

Since my second visit to England, I had to try and forget about the feeling of happiness and security I found there. I knew moving there wasn’t an option. But I still couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Let’s just say this made focusing on schoolwork back in Canada really difficult.

When I started watching Outlander, I started to remember how I felt while I was in England. Once again, I started desperately wanting to pack up and move my life overseas. The only difference is that then the new destination was Scotland. 

Willie the groundskeeper from the Simpsons yelling

Sounds ridiculous? Well, I didn’t think so. 

My dream is to become a lawyer after I graduate and I set my sights on overseas education. 

It seemed perfectly reasonable. My partner did the same thing. It would cost more money, but the process is shorter and I could study in Scotland, (and maybe move there afterward). Sounds great, right?

Well, it wasn’t. And things came crashing down around me very quickly.

I went through a very brief depression and during that time, I tried to figure out why this all felt so important.

It took some soul searching before it came to me. It was Outlander, and more specifically, Jamie Fraser. I am the kind of person who gets really attached to on-screen characters. When a show I am enjoying ends, I tend to go through what is commonly referred to as “post-series depression.” At first, I thought making an entire life decision on the feeling I got from watching a TV show seems ludicrous.

But then I looked into it, and I realized it’s not unusual to form deep attachments to characters in television and movies

woman hugging an invisible person

Our brains are wired for social connection. We crave it. This wiring is an evolutionary adaptation that predates computers and TV. The only problem is that our brains have not yet evolved to understand the concept of TV. 

That attachment part of our brain can’t tell that the character we are seeing on the screen isn’t a real person. Our minds form attachment in the same way as it would to a romantic partner or a real-life friend. So when we spend all day binge-watching our favourite show, (and maybe spend more time with the show than real people), our brains form what is known as a “parasocial relationship.” This is just a fancy way of saying a one-sided relationship. We feel as though we are interacting with the character even though they are not communicating with us.

That is what happened to me. I was envisioning an idealized version of Scotland that was portrayed in the show. One where a big strong (red-headed) man would be there to defend my honour from the darkness and violence, then come home and open up like a big squishy teddy bear. It appealed almost too perfectly to my history-loving, nostalgic, and old-fashioned self.

I fell too hard for the fantasy and lost sight of reality. My brain was tricked. 

Jamie Fraser from Outlander

So I stepped back, turned off the TV, and took a break from Jamie and Claire’s romance. During that time, I got some perspective and crafted a much more reasonable path to achieving my dreams. This path did not include abandoning my entire family and leaving my life behind. 

Do I still miss England? Of course, I do. But I have recognized that it isn’t home. Home isn’t a place, it’s where your family and friends are. I will take as many vacations abroad as I can afford to in the coming years, but I know that my family here in Canada is worth so much more than some silly idealized version of another country.

Happy binge-watching!

For more on-screen myth-busting, be sure to check out lies Hollywood teaches us about being in college

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