Why We Get Hooked On Will-They-Won't-They Relationships, According To A Psychologist

05/18/2015 11:34 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015

TV without romance is Grade-A boring.

From Sam and Diane to Jim and Pam, from Ross and Rachel to Luke and Lorelai, TV couples are a continuous point of interest for viewers at home, no matter the genre. We all tune in each week to see who's going to let a glance linger a little too long, tweet our hearts out about it and fall asleep to fan videos of our favorite couple's best moments. Maybe you've even made a fan vid of your own. Which may have made you wonder, is your extreme emotional investment in these characters (people who are not real nor your friends) psychologically sound?

To find out, The Huffington Post turned to Dr. Jared DeFife, a psychologist and adjunct assistant professor at Emory University.

1. Humans love love.

According to DeFife, there's a simple reason why humans enjoy watching love play out onscreen: "We're in the love with the notion of love," he said. "Fans get really invested in seeing romance develop, especially over the course of a longer collection of novels or a longer television show. They want to see not only the plot develop but the relationships of the characters develop. There's an investment in seeing that kind of romantic relationship blossom. We're wired to really connect with each other in that way. So there's an investment in seeing characters that you care about develop their own relationships."

2. We feel characters' emotions along with them.

It's satisfying to watch a romance develop onscreen because you're not just theoretically understanding that two characters are falling in love. You're oftentimes actually feeling what they feel. "There is a certain amount of empathy. When you really engage in a fictional universe, you often experience the emotions the characters go through -- their excitement, their anxiety," DeFife said. "So even seeing romance develop, because there is such an empathy with the characters, it's often that the fans who are immersed in that universe experience the emotions themselves."

3. Our brains are desperate for romantic tension to resolve.

According to DeFife, this strong desire we feel for an onscreen couple to get together is rooted in a psychological phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

"It was named after a psychologist who observed waiters in restaurants who would not write down their orders for a table," he said. "She always wondered how they could remember the orders for the whole table and still get it right. She found that they had memory for the order only as long as it wasn't filled, and then once it was filled that memory for the order went away."

The phenomenon now refers to the notion that an unsolved problem remains cognitively alive. Unresolved romantic chemistry in TV shows and books, DeFife says, falls neatly into this category.

"[Romantic tension] over the course of a series or over the course a novel or set of novels that's unresolved keeps our interest. We kind of keep playing that out in our own heads," he said. "It keeps our engagement with it going cognitively."

4. Fan-fic may help our brains put that unresolved romantic tension to rest.

When shows or book series do not (or have not yet) put a fan-desired couple together, some viewers take to online forums to write their own tales about the characters that fulfill their wishes. DeFife posits that this could be a way for viewers to put to rest the cognitive stimulation that results from an unresolved pairing.

"Fan-fiction may allow that cognitive stimulation to ease up," he said. "People who write fan fiction as a way of sort of closing that loop hole may be trying to take that sort of tension and work it out for themselves."

5. Shipping fictional couples is completely psychologically normal.

While the stereotype of the TV-obsessed may be a person with trouble interacting with actual live human beings, DeFife says investment in fictional couples is a completely psychologically normal.

"[Lonely people] might be one type of person who engages in this," he said. "But you might find others who are totally secure and happy in their relationships."

DeFife stresses the importance of resisting pathologizing the worship of TV couples or participation in fan-fic communities.

"The vast majority of people who are engaging in this are [doing so] in an affirmative, positive, socially engaging, feeling really connected with other people way," he said. "There's always this move to pathologize this process. I don't think it's a pathological one at all. I think it's really normal. I think what it says about you is that it says you care about connections and relationships to others -- as we all do. So to engage in this inherently normal."

BONUS: Rooting for celebrity couples comes from the same instinct.

Though it seems different to root for celebrity pairings to get together (like, say, BJ Novak and Mindy Kaling) because they are real people and not characters, DeFife suggests the desire actually comes from the same impulse.

"Celebrities are kind of unscripted fictional characters for us in a way," DeFife said. "Especially with social media there is a feeling of connection like you really know these people and have a relationship with them when in reality, we don't. We have some glimpses into their lives."

"They're real people but our relationship with them is similar in the way to a fictional relationship. We get snippets of time and periods of their lives and we have an access to them that allows us to feel very connected with and invest in them even if we don't have that actual relationship. So in ways it's very similar," he said. "We see a celebrity with certain traits and qualities and have an attachment with them and start to think about a potential pairing for them that would work or that we want to root for."

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TV Couples Who Make Us Believe In Love
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