In today’s fan culture, many people find that their favored pieces of media are worth more time invested than life itself. Some lock themselves into these fictional universes to escape reality or seek comfort from trauma. Others do it simply because they’re too frightened of socialization. However, I find that the unhealthiest version of this behavior is fictional dating. Many people within fandoms now choose characters over true flesh and blood partners. It has become something of a problem online, where this is validated and even celebrated on some websites. I’ll admit to having had this problem myself, and for those who only have an outside view of this phenomena, I have a story to tell about how I fell into this rut and how I climbed out.
Falling Into Fake Love
I remember walking outside with my ex in college. My best friend had been late that day and I had suggested that we wait for her. My ex declined, so I asked if we could go wake her in case she was asleep. This set off his anger. I watched in shock as he threw his bottle of Powerade onto the sidewalk with such force that it exploded into a mess of blue liquid. I walked away after that and never came back.
Before this incident, my ex had done a number of emotionally abusive actions to keep me from socializing with friends and to do as he pleased. I remember all the times in which he threatened self harm or pulled me away to my room to talk about some minor thing I’d done to upset him. He’d follow me to the bathroom every time I left a class we both attended and would grow jealous of my best friend when we went shopping or hung out. He’d even thrust his finger into my mouth and pull at my hair despite my complaints. One time I woke up with him standing over me, staring soundlessly at my body.
After leaving that relationship, I felt a great pressure taken from my shoulders. It was a relief to have escaped. I had been trapped with my ex for almost a year now, and I was finally out of his clutches. From that day forward I decided that I never wanted to date again. Rather did I know that the alternative would be just as bad, if not worse.
A few months later my best friend introduced me to anime. It was the first time I’d really watched it, unless you count Pokemon. I was enthralled with the animation and style, but most of all the characters. I found myself growing attracted to one specific man in the show we would watch, which was odd since I felt I had lost the ability to find anyone attractive at all. Soon however this character was all that was on my mind. I joined the fandom because of it and even bought a plush that I would cart around as an avatar of my new crush. I reasoned that having a fake boyfriend was better than having a real one. A fictional being couldn’t hurt me like my ex had.
I find that abuse, trauma, negative experience, or social anxiety seem to fuel this concept of fictional dating. I remember my friends at the time, and many of them would converse about their past abuse or their fears of the world outside the internet. Many of them grew sour over time to protect this ‘relationship’ they were having and would even attack others who courted the same character. One girl I knew went on a rampage insulting the canon wife of the character she loved and leaving horrendous comments on any artwork that had been drawn of her.
My own false relationship lasted for over two years, and I forced myself to treat it as if it were true. I turned down men who were interested in me out of fear of what had happened before, but labeled it as loyalty to my ‘current lover’ to keep up the mental ruse. Inside I was extremely lonely, though I refused to acknowledge it. On the third year of this whole mess, that loneliness was simply too much to ignore. I began to realize that what I had been doing was actually harming me rather than helping, and that the qualities I had been placing onto this character were actually traits I secretly wished to find in a true partner. I wanted someone who would care for me and treat me as if I mattered, and in my desperation to find that, I had taken on this fictional man as a substitute. It didn’t help that many others in the fandom often did the same, and even validated each other for it.
I decided to become more social again. This game was over. I would meet someone real to hang out with, even if it wasn’t romantic. I began a group for others like me on the autism spectrum and managed to secure several good friendships, one of which was my current boyfriend Dylan. At first we would meet up about once a month at restaurants to talk and catch up, but eventually Dylan invited me to play tabletop RPGs with him. I decided to give it a go and get to know him better, and after around eight weekly sessions, we were beginning to fall for each other.
We began to see one another outside of RPGs, and I dropped hints to express my interest until Dylan asked me out. It was an immediate yes. Since then, things have been going smoothly, and I’ve never been happier. The memory of dating the nonexistent is a sour one, and I can recognize that it caused more misery than it fixed. Getting out of that mindset was hard, but when I did it, it may have felt even better than when I’d left that ex. Now I had someone who actually cared about me. I can talk to him, and he’ll talk back. I can touch him and feel his heartbeat. He is everything I could have ever asked for in a person, and all it took to find him was a little socialization. I hope that others who are trapped in this mindset can also find release someday, maybe in the same way I did. A real person feels much better than anything fiction can give you, and though it takes courage to find one, it is very much possible.