People who struggle with romantic relationships may find solace in their favorite movies and TV shows as they offer a ‘safe space’ to explore their own problems, wants, and needs, a new paper suggests.


Image via Pixabay.

New research from Ohio State University suggests that watching relationships unfold in movies or shows can help people with attachment or anxiety issues better navigate their own social and romantic ties. The study looked at how individuals relate to the characters in these stories, and how that, in turn, helped them come to grips with their own feelings.

The faults in our stars are sometimes the same as ours

“For people with attachment issues, movies and TV shows can be a way to try to understand their problems or to vicariously meet their needs for intimacy in a way that they may find difficult in real life,” says Nathan Silver, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in communication at The Ohio State University.

“We can do a lot more with stories than just escape into them.”

The authors report that people with attachment issues are more likely to become engaged in the stories playing out in front of them compared to others. For example, they feel more connected to the fictional characters and their pursuits, and are more likely to try to imagine what they would do in the same situations. It’s possible, then, that people who are having trouble with their own romantic relationships watch movies or TV shows for more than simple entertainment or as an escape — they may represent a safe space to explore and learn about our own wants and needs without risking making any faux pas in our current relationships.

For the study, the team worked with 1,039 adult Americans, who they questioned online. The participants self-reported on a series of measurements probing into their media use behaviors, their attachment dimensions, and how interested and engaged they were by the narratives seen in media. The goal was to see whether interactions with movies and shows helped people cope with attachment insecurities in two areas: avoidance and anxiety.

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People high in avoidance basically don’t want to get ‘too’ emotionally-close with their partners. They can be described as ‘cold’ or ’emotionally unavailable’. On the other end of the spectrum, high-anxiety individuals are commonly referred to as ‘needy’ — they want a lot of emotional intimacy and closeness with their partners, often bubbling up in the form of seeking constant reassurance that one’s partner cares about them.

The team reports that people who were high in attachment avoidance but low in anxiety were less engaged with the stories they watched and didn’t feel as strong a connection to the characters on screen. In other words, the same avoidance tendencies they (presumably) display in their real-life relationships carried over into how they relate to the movies and TV shows they watch, according to the team. People high in attachment anxiety were more engaged with the stories.

Hot and cold

However, what really interested the team was how people who are high in both anxiety and avoidance relate to media, Silver says — the study suggests that they engaged in the stories they watched much more, and in more ways, that the other groups.

“These are the classic self-sabotagers. They really want supportive intimacy, but tend to screw it up because they also have these avoidance behaviors,” he said. “What the story world provides these people is a safe place to deal with this ambivalence. That’s why I believe they are engaging more in the story world.”

Anxious-avoidants were more likely to say they were absorbed by or transported into the story world, the team reports. They were also more likely to say that the stories helped them understand people they didn’t know, that they imagined what would happen if characters made different choices, and that they liked to imagine they knew their favorite TV and movie characters personally.

Silver says these results point to anxious-avoidants using media as a means to imagine a relationship “without the real-life problems, like the storybook romance of Jim and Pam on The Office.” By taking the perspective of a character they’re watching, these people can essentially bypass their own attachment issues and “have this very functional relationship,” just like the one being portrayed on-screen.

“What our results suggest is that people with these issues can use the story world to think about how they would react if they had the chance,” says Slater. “They expand their social experiences, at least vicariously.”

Slater adds that the team can’t currently say if this ‘vicarious’ living of the stories they watch actually helps them or not. However, they say they “speculate this is certainly one of the attractions of stories,” as people with attachment issues often miss the opportunity to experience some of the aspects of romantic relationships in their own lives.

“Our findings suggest that the story world offers people, in addition to escape, a safe environment to cope with some of the problems they have with relationships,” he said.

The paper “A safe space for self-expansion: Attachment and motivation to engage and interact with the story world” has been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.