If you aren’t up to speed on your knowledge of Canadian Olympic ice-dancing duo Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, allow me to catch you up on a few important facts: They’ve been skating together for more than 20 years, ever since they were paired up by Moir’s aunt when Virtue was seven and Moir was nine. They had a routine that’s basically one sparkly swatch of fabric away from being literal sex on skates — a routine so sexy, in fact, that they had to tone it down for the Olympics. They’re two beautiful humans who spend an inordinate amount of time putting their bodies very, very close to each other. They even “dated” for a few months as little kids. And yet somehow, despite all of those things — despite a backstory that seems lab-engineered for romance — they are not dating now.
When I first Googled them after watching them win the team free dance in Pyeongchang over the weekend, I didn’t believe it. And now, after falling down a multi-day internet rabbit hole of their past routines and old interviews, I’m more than a little upset about it. (Just look how cute they are playing the newlywed game, for God’s sake.)
Plenty of other people on the internet, it seems, are right there with me. But still, just to be safe, I asked psychologist Shira Gabriel, a professor at the University of Buffalo, to reassure me that I’m not insane. Thankfully, she indulged. “We’re perhaps the most social species out there, and so we’re wired to form connections to other people,” she told me. “What we’re not wired to do is differentiate between real relationships that we have with people and ones that we’re just reading about or hearing stories about.” For most of human history, she explained, we didn’t really have to make that distinction — we didn’t have the internet, TV, magazines, or really any other way to constantly immerse ourselves in the lives of people we don’t directly know. So now we’re stuck with psyches that treat those faraway characters, both real and fictional, as though they’re flesh-and-blood friends, a phenomenon that psychologists call parasocial relationships.
It doesn’t hurt that we’re being fed a carefully crafted narrative about their relationship, Gabriel added: “You’re not reading about the days when they can’t stand each other, or the ways that they’re not compatible. You’re reading stories that are designed to draw you in and make you feel close to these people.” (It’s worth noting that we’re that much more drawn in, and feel that much closer, because they’re so good-looking — research shows that we really do pay more attention to people when they’re beautiful.)
And even on the ice, they’re shaping the story. “We’re doing our job,” Moir told an interviewer recently. “We’re always telling stories. We’re supposed to be reacting, a man and woman on the ice. It’s romantic.”
Maybe it’s just that they’re doing their job a little too well. On an emotional level, we tend to have trouble separating an actor from a role, explains Karen Dill-Shackleford, a media psychologist at Fairfield University. “If you see someone acting a certain way, it’s natural to think that’s what they’re like,” she says. “And if they’re really unlike that character, that throws us off.”
But it’s not just a sense of incongruity that’s been bothering me, or even a sense of betrayal. Really, it’s just the certainty that I know better than them — that if they just took a minute and opened their eyes, they’d see the obvious truth that they’ve been missing.
According to Gabriel, that’s just parasocial relationships in action: “We look at our friends and we think, ‘Why are they together when obviously they can’t stand each other?’ Or, ‘Why don’t they realize that they should be together?’” she says. And when our minds classify famous strangers as friends, it follows that we’d feel just as certain about our opinions on their life choices.
I’m fully aware of the absurdity of it. Virtue and Moir are clearly doing just fine in their life choices — they’re Olympians, world champions, and for a little while even stars of their own Canadian TV show. I, on the other hand, am someone whose biggest accomplishment today was writing a screed about their love lives from the comfort of my couch.
But still. Virtue has called their relationship “complicated,” which isn’t as strong as a denial could be. And a few years ago, Moir said of his girlfriend at the time, a non-Tessa named Cassandra, that they were “hot and heavy” — which, to be frank, doesn’t sound like a thing real people say unless they’re trying to prove something. There’s still hope.