Our Preoccupation With Celeb Breakups Is Bordering On Dangerous And We Need To Talk About It

Celebrities have often been seen by the general public as figures we can vicariously live through. Their lifestyles and especially their relationships have been heavily documented for as long as the concept of celebrity has been around. Think about how invested people were in high-profile couples like Brangelina and Bennifer. However, it also begs the question: Why do some people dedicate a significant amount of their time to staying updated on a couple they don't even know? It's because of the parasocial relationships formed by fans with their favorite celebrities. These are bonds that these fans imagine having with famous people they've never even met.

Even though parasocial relationships aren't inherently bad, ultimately private breakups between high-profile celebrity couples have generated a concerning response among fans. This phenomenon's latest example is the breakup between Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn. Fans have been documented doing some pretty dramatic stuff, most famously going to Swift's previous New York City residence to lay down flowers in a makeshift memorial. Swift's fans can be seen as the phenomenon's poster children, but they are far from the only fanbase to exhibit such behavior. Women.com spoke exclusively to Joni Ogle, LCSW, Michelle Landeros, LMFT, Sarah Chotkowski, LICSW, and Dr. Ketan Parmar. These mental health experts all cautioned that some parasocial attachments to celebrity relationships could be going too far.

A brief breakdown of parasocial relationships

The behavior exhibited in the wake of Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn's breakup is far from new. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt split back in 2016, the internet experienced a slew of emotions from indifference to total devastation. So, what happens when this reaction goes too far? Many celebrities have gone on record discussing uncomfortable interactions where fans considered themselves to be their friends. The idea of parasocial relationships and the dangers they could present has also hit the mainstream in a big way, with the limited series "Swarm" garnering high ratings and lots of online buzz.

At the same time, it's important to understand that parasocial relationships can provide some important benefits. According to a 2021 study in the scientific journal Human Arenas, parasocial behavior on social media actually helped alleviate anxiety and loneliness in some people during the COVID-19 quarantine. In fact, many researchers have determined that parasocial behavior can be beneficial to one's mental health as long as they recognize boundaries and limits.

"A good parasocial relationship should respect the personal life and privacy of the public figure in question and clearly understand that the person on the other side of this one-sided bond is likely unaware of the existence or intensity of the connection," Joni Ogle, LCSW, CSAT and CEO of The Heights Treatment, explained exclusively to Women.

How far is too far?

Parasocial behavior should not come at the expense of yourself or the boundaries between you and your favorite celebrity. According to Sarah Chotkowski, a clinical social worker and therapist (LICSW), this balance has been tricky to obtain among Swifties due to Taylor Swift's relatable and accessible brand, especially regarding the complicated dynamics at play with the pilgrimages to Swift's old home. "If it's an outing with a close friend, and it becomes a funny story that cements a real relationship, I think a case could be made for this degree of Taylor fandom being life-affirming," Chotkowski explained exclusively to Women. "On the other hand, if fixating on Taylor's breakup causes you to withdraw from your relationships, or spend money and time you don't have making this pilgrimage, I would express concern." 

" ... [F]ans may find themselves crossing over into unhealthy behaviors if they become too emotionally engaged with their favorite celebrities and lose sight of reality or obsessively engage in activities to gain attention from them," Landeros explained.

This is a sentiment echoed by Michelle Landeros, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) at Therapist Pages. When talking exclusively to Women, she stressed that obsessing over the Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn breakup to the extent that it takes up a significant part of one's daily life signals a dangerous shift in a parasocial relationship. While no reports of actual damage or crimes have been made in this particular instance, they have happened to other former couples in the past. In 2022, Colombian pop star Shakira was subjected to harassment by an obsessed stalker after splitting from soccer player Pique. Pete Davidson was also reported to have entered therapy due to drama surrounding his relationship with Kim Kardashian. Kanye West constantly harassed Davidson and encouraged his ardent fanbase to do the same.

Nowhere to go but up

With all of this in mind, it's ultimately not the responsibility of Taylor Swift or other celebrities to dictate how fans interact with their brand. Rather, it's up to the fans to control their own behavior and to recognize when a parasocial relationship has gone too far. "It is up to each individual to decide where the line should be drawn and whether or not these types of interactions are appropriate," said Dr. Ketan Parmar, a psychiatrist and mental health expert at ClinicSpots. "If you feel like your admiration for someone is taking on unhealthy or intrusive proportions, then it might be time to step back and consider if your behavior is really appropriate," Dr. Parmar exclusively told Women.

So, where exactly should Swifties and other attached fans go from here? Maybe it's for the best to log off and stop monitoring every publicly available moment of Swift and Alwyn's lives. No matter what rumors you believe in, it is ultimately a private situation that deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Put yourself in Swift's shoes and ask whether you would want your fans memorializing your former relationship or making theories about what went down between you two. If you're uncomfortable, the chances are high that she feels the same way. "It is important to remember that this moment is ultimately private and should not be intruded upon by outsiders," said Dr. Parmar. "Showing respect for someone's decision, even if you disagree with it, can go a long way."