Imaginary relationships: not just for daydreamers?

It’s common for immersive and maladaptive daydreamers to develop strong emotional connections to our characters. But when those characters are either fictional, or based on someone we don’t know well, it can feel a little crazy. We wonder if it’s healthy to love someone who’s not real or who isn’t part of our real life. But in fact, it’s very common to have imaginary relationships, even for non-daydreamers. The following are just some of the imaginary relationships that have been recognised and studied by psychologists.

Limerence

I’ve written before about the difference between a daydream relationship and limerence. First described by Dorothy Tennov in 1979, limerence is an intense and involuntary obsession with someone. It’s often someone you know, although it can be someone you know of, such as a celebrity. You have a strong desire – so strong it feels like a need – to be in a romantic relationship with this person. Not being with them is so painful that you try to escape from that pain by building a fictional life with them in your imagination. You daydream about what it would be like to date them or share your life with them.

But if you’re a daydreamer, this fictional life can feel so real that it maintains the limerence even if you stop interacting with the real person. This is why daydreamers often feel limerence more intensely and for longer than non-daydreamers. But the key difference is that in limerence, the daydreaming is an attempt to escape the pain of not being in a real relationship, whereas in a healthy daydream relationship, you can accept and enjoy the relationship for the fiction it is.

Imaginary companions

Many of us had imaginary friends in childhood, or we knew someone who did. Imaginary companions are common: research has shown that 65% of children have had one by the age of 7. Psychologists see the creation of an imaginary companion as a normal part of healthy development. Imaginary friends are usually fictional, and can be humans, animals or fantasy creatures. The imaginary friend typically accompanies the child as they go about their real life, rather than existing in a paracosm the child visits during imaginative play. Most children leave their imaginary companions behind somewhere between the ages of 9 and 12.

Parasocial relationships

The term parasocial relationship originated in 1956 to describe a one-sided relationship with a celebrity you’ve watched on TV but never met in person. When you watch somebody on TV or online, it can feel as though you’re actually interacting with them, as if they’re speaking directly to you. This is called a parasocial interaction.

            When you have repeated parasocial interactions with someone, you become more familiar with them, and you start to feel like you know them. You think about them even when you’re not watching them. They become part of your life. At this point, your parasocial interactions have developed into a parasocial relationship.

            Parasocial relationships have become more common with the advent of social media. Celebrities share details of their lives online, so we can learn a lot about them despite never meeting them, and despite them not knowing we exist.  

Continuing bonds

Continuing bonds were first described in 1996. A continuing bond is the relationship you have with someone after they’ve died. It’s usually someone who was a significant part of your life, such as a spouse or parent. You might have mental conversations with them about what’s going on in your life, or you might feel they’re watching over you and supporting you. Research into continuing bonds is challenging the idea that love has to be reciprocated to be real.

Summary
LimerenceImaginary companionParasocial relationshipContinuing bond
Who is the relationship with?A crush, often someone you knowSomeone you made upA celebrity, or a fictional characterSomeone who was important to you
What is the relationship like?RomanticFriendshipFriendship or romanticAny significant relationship
Who has the relationship?AdultsYoung childrenAdultsAny age
How real is the relationshipCan be real (reciprocated) but usually isn’tEntirely imaginaryEntirely imaginaryA real relationship that has ended

What does this mean for daydream relationships?

So, where does all this leave immersive and maladaptive daydreamers who are deeply emotionally attached to their characters?

            Firstly, it shows that interacting with someone in your imagination isn’t as weird as we often think it is. In fact, it can be healthy and natural. As daydreamers, we probably experience our characters a little differently from non-daydreamers. We might see them more vividly, we probably find it easier to put them in a fictional world, and because our brains are so comfortable with this, our imaginary relationships might persist for longer or become a bigger part of our lives. But the emotional component definitely isn’t unique to daydreamers, and isn’t necessarily something to worry about.

            The difference between daydream relationships and the fictional relationships described above is that we can see the character as fictional, even when they’re based on a real person. Many of us constantly remind ourselves that our character is not real. And when we accept that the only place our character exists is in our imagination, the relationship isn’t one-way anymore. Yes, we’re controlling both sides of every interaction. We can force our characters to love us back in a way that wouldn’t be possible in reality. But that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that they do love us back. The relationship isn’t physically real, but it is very much emotionally real. And that means it can bring us joy and fulfilment in much the same way a real relationship can.

[Image by Couleur from Pixabay]