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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

This Week:
Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes - Will it Last?

As a relationship expert, do you think that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes will break-up like recent media reports predict?


Yes, I’ve studied love and attachment. And yes, I’ve studied the psychology of celebrities and fans. But, I certainly have no crystal ball to tell what relationships will last and which ones will crash and burn. Still, I can say that celebrity couples face the same compatibility challenges that we all face – except their challenges tend to be more intensified. Consider the fact that major celebrities have little time, no extended periods of personal or relationship privacy, they have often artificial images to live up to, and constantly filming love scenes does not really help relieve feelings of jealously that partner’s may have. All of these factors strongly work against celebrity couples – be they two A-listers, two B-listers, or some combination thereof.

But, there’s another, more important, point I want to make. Media reports and news articles on celebrity couples really highlight our society’s fascintation with fantasy relationships. Psychologists refer to it as “parasocial relationships:” one-sided relationships where we can know celebrities to some degree but our affection, attention and loyalty to them will never be reciprocated. I think Western Society cannot live without celebrities. Western societies, in my opinion are entertainment saturated- and media- saturated cultures. This combination fuels our preoccupation with celebrities. They are entertainment vehicles – pure and simple – and I liken their main functions as “fueling the economy” and serving as “role models.”

This is anecdotal, but I feel there is a strong relationship between celebrity worship and technology. While there’s always been celebrity worship, technology has taken it to a heightened level. Prime time news programs, entertainment “news” shows, the Internet, and other advanced forms of communication allow fans to get almost any amount of information on almost any celebrity at almost any time. This “instant” fix probably reinforces and deepens the “addiction” people have to celebrities.

It does this by promoting in people the illusion that we can actually know and develop a relationship with celebrities. In essence, people seem to confuse having a lot of information about a celebrity with genuine intimacy. But now, more than ever before, technology allows fans to “get closer” their favorite celebrities – that is, the distance between fans and celebrities is getting smaller and smaller everyday.

I think two of the main implications of this. First, the demarcation between news and entertainment has been significantly blurred. That is, our society has sacrificed genuine news and information for entertainment. Our culture is so spoiled that we focus on our entertainment 24/7! Second, the constant trivialization actually diminishes celebrities themselves. Celebrities used to be individuals who truly were special – they had obvious talents, skills, and characteristics that set them apart from the general population. Now, celebrities are mass produced – even to the point where TV shows now turn everyday people into celebrities (can you say “Reality TV”?). This means that celebrities now compete with everyone for publicity and attention. I think this is one of the reasons why celebrities are doing more outrageous publicity stunts. And what does this all teach our impressionable children and young adults? It teaches them that it’s perfectly okay to do whatever it takes to get attention. Not very productive lessons!

My research has revealed that low levels of celebrity worship are normal in the general population and can actually be healthy forms of behavior – such as promoting bonding among people (fan clubs, coworkers talking about the latest TV episodes around the water cooler), promoting stress reduction in people (entertainment and temporary escapism), and encouraging positive changes in society, such as when celebrities stimulate gift giving to charities or inspiring children to explore new talents and activities. Also, in Western society where celebrities are so prevalent, not knowing about them would be indicative of being unaware of current events. And too, having idols and role models has always been a natural and healthy part of identity development for adolescents and young adulthood. So, in several ways, low levels of celebrity worship are normal and healthy for us.

But, caring too much about celebrities is unequivocally unhealthy for our own sense of self and our relationships. Higher levels of celebrity worship (as measured by validated questionnaire instruments) correlate with variables such as increased depression, anxiety, lower critical thinking, and poorer body image. Obviously, we don’t know cause and effect here for certain, but it is clear that research findings consistently find that more extreme celebrity worship occurs in tandem with poorer psychological well being.

Cultural anthropological and historical studies show us that human societies have always had a need to “worship” things – and sure enough this was often special people in society – the best hunters, athletes, the most beautiful, the smartest, the most spiritual, etc. But, I feel that modern technology has only fueled this innate propensity to worship celebrities. People want to follow celebrities and networks and other media forums want to make money so they give people what they want. In turn, this just encourages the addiction to celebrities – much like offering chocolate to people who are already addicted to chocolate (but who really need to diet). As a result, and this is in my opinion since we have no historical and longitudinal data to know for certain, the prevalence of individuals with clinically problematic levels of celebrity worship is very likely on the rise.

I’ve gone on a tangent here, but the upshot of all of this comes back to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. People that are preoccupied with what’s happening in Tom and Katie’s relationship or who have to know what star is sleeping with another star are missing the point… and the boat. These people should be concerned with their own relationships. These people should be investing their affection, attention, and loyalty in their friends, family and other loves ones in their lives – the very people with whom they have meaningful relationships that can be reciprocated. If you’re the type of person who’s absolutely preoccupied with celebrity relationships or the lives of celebrities in general, then recognize that preoccupation as a red flag. By overly focusing on the lives of people you don’t really know and will likely never know you, you’re possibly neglecting the stability and fulfillment of real relationships available to you right now. Put down the celebrity magazine and turn off that entertainment news show. Instead, spend time with those around you. Oh, and take time to really read the online dating profiles of others --- that’s reading as fascinating and entertaining as anything Tom and Katie are doing this week.

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