People Can't Cope With a TV Series Finale for This Psychological Reason

The end of any relationship is tough, even if that relationship is with a TV character.

Breaking up with a TV show can feel as crummy as breaking up with a significant other, whether you’ve religiously watched the show every Sunday, like Game of Thrones, or all in one fell swoop, like the last season of Stranger Things.

As it turns out, psychologists say there’s a reason for that deep, emotional connection. When you watch a show over a number of years — or over a number of hours — you form a social relationship with those fictitious characters.

A relationship between a living human and a TV show character is called a parasocial relationship. These relationships can be really strong, and can even affect your normal social relationships with a friend or romantic partner.

In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, scientists found that couples who binge watch TV together, read, or listen to the same music have a better relationship.

But when a series ends and you never see those characters again, you go through a “parasocial breakup.” And just like a real breakup, whether with a friend or a romantic partner, the end of that relationship can make you feel depressed and alone.

Watch the video above to learn more about the aftermath of a parasocial breakup, and how to bounce back.

The “parasocial relationship/breakup” phenomenon was apparent at the end of the TV show Friends. In a 2006 study, scientists at the University of Arizona and the University of Haifa asked 279 college students to fill out a questionnaire about the show a week after it went off the air.

Binge watching shows can lead to a parasocial breakup with that show ends.
Research shows that people who binge watch tend to fall deeper into the world of the show and might have trouble extricating themselves.

The research team found that four factors affected how badly a viewer took their breakup with the Central Perk gang: how often they watched the show, how much they enjoyed the show, how popular they thought their favorite character was, and how lonely they felt when they took the survey.

The good news, according to this study, is that parasocial breakups aren’t as difficult as social breakups. That is, unless you’re feeling particularly lonely. According to the paper, “Lonely viewers are likely more dependent on their relationships with their favorite characters and hence feel more anxious on relationship dissolution.”

So if you’re lonely, you might be tempted to hard-core binge watch to get as much time with your friends as possible. But experts say that binge can leave you depressed. Jessica Kruger, a professor at the University at Buffalo, told Inverse in a previous article that binge watching too much can impact mental and physical health.

The best way to get out of a show hole, she says, is to take a break. Watch a few episodes of a different show that you really love, but can stop easily (The Office is on Netflix until 2021, just saying). Tell yourself you can only watch three episodes, and then take a break. Read a book. Clean your apartment. Go on a real date. And then start the series over again from the beginning, and look back on all the memories you shared with your parasocial friends.