Relationships have, at a minimum, three components. In a two-person relationship, those components are the first person, the second person, and the context.
You’ve known this to be true since you were a child, the first time you ever hung out with a friend from school outside of school. (Or how about the universal strangeness of running into your teacher somewhere outside the classroom!) You can often tell a lot about the relationship by how it changes when that context changes inadvertently. If you run into your boss at the grocery store, are you excited about it? Or do you avert your eyes and make for the exit?
Very healthy relationships can expand through multiple contexts, but some still may be more comfortable than others. Working with a spouse or close friend can seem great at first, but also has the potential to be difficult. When your bandmate – with whom you have a great professional relationship – lands on hard times and becomes your roommate, things may be different. Context matters.
Something I’ve heard talked about a lot recently is the idea of “parasocial” relationships. This is the idea that you can feel like you have a relationship with a famous person, simply because you have access to so much information about them. A constant stream of their comings and goings, their thoughts, their words – all aimed (it often seems) right at you. You may hear more from your favorite celebrity than your own immediate family. The celebrity, of course, couldn’t identify your dead body for a thousand dollars, but that fact gets subdued by everything else.
Really, what’s happened is that you have the context of a relationship without the relationship itself. Person B is missing, but Person A is in the space where a relationship would go. And because Person B isn’t really interacting, Person A gets to adjust that context all they want.
That’s part of the appeal. With two real people, the context becomes an aggregate of their desires. An offer to hang out after work can be declined, an invitation to escalate a friendship to a romantic level can be rejected, and so on. But when Person B is just there, no one is stopping you from inserting the feelings that you want.
Of course, this isn’t just a phenomenon with celebrities. We often misunderstand the context of the relationships we’re in because people are imperfect communicators and relationships are complex. Things like the above examples – trying to turn a professional relationship into a friendship or a friendship into a romance – are common stories. Intensity doesn’t equal depth: you can get thirty hours of new information each week about your favorite celebrity, but that doesn’t mean that you have a deep relationship with them. And you likely spend many hours each week with your coworkers, but that doesn’t mean that you’re friends.
It doesn’t mean you aren’t, of course! But examining how we interpret the context of our interactions is a fascinating pursuit nonetheless. Some people do it very badly! Parasocial relationships with celebrities are one thing, but there’s also the person that thinks their waitress is in love with them or that their lab partner wants to be their best friend. When these don’t pan out, the person can often feel like they’ve been rejected as a person – but that isn’t the case! It’s the context that’s been rejected, which isn’t a moral judgment on the individual at all. If Tom Hanks doesn’t want to be your best friend even though you’ve felt like he was for years, it isn’t because Tom Hanks thinks you’re a bad person. It’s just because this context doesn’t fit in the broader tapestry of his life.
…I only just realized this now after typing that last paragraph, but I’m describing the central conflict in the movie The Cable Guy. That movie is super good and underrated, by the way, but it’s exactly what I’m talking about here.