As someone who was desperate for a relationship a few years ago, and as someone who was, well, in love with a particular guy, I sure put up with a lot of unhelpful and hurtful behaviors from him.
After a great month of talking, he broke things off on Valentine’s Day — only to message me again every few months for a day or two. At first, I was excited to see he’d messaged me. Our one month of talking was amazing, mostly, and I wanted to be with him. But after he ghosted me repeatedly, I realized: He’s not the one. He’s not worth my time, and in fact, he’s “paperclipping” me.
“Paperclipping” is a dating phenomenon that’s similar to breadcrumbing in which someone comes back into your life only to feel good about themselves — and then only to leave again. They use you and your interest to increase their confidence, making you think they’re interested without showing any actual signs of advancing the relationship.
This term is based on “Clippy,” the little paperclip icon that used to pop up to “help” when you were using Microsoft Word — even though it didn’t truly “help” at all. Clippy was unsupportive, annoying, and unuseful. He was random and made you believe you would get your questions answered, even though you soon realized you wouldn’t.
“Paperclipping is a new term for an age-old behavior that has allowed people to increase their sense of worth by feeding on superficial, intermittent connection — and the emotional responses of others,” said Carla Maine Manly, a clinical psychologist. “Paperclipping is generally a sign that the individual is emotionally immature and unable to engage in a meaningful relationship. A person might paperclip due to unconscious fears of being abandoned or rejected.”
“As a result, the paper-clipping person ‘disappears’ before things get meaningful — and then reappears in order to feel validated and important. Such a person never stays long enough to experience actual connection due to the underlying fears and low sense of self-worth,” she said.
An artist who created a great “paperclipping” graphic for Instagram also illustrates how she sees this behavior. “To me, paperclipping is when someone has you on the back burner and feels like you’re about to go cold. They’ll reach out — not in an attempt to see you, or move things forward — but to re-stoke the flame and make sure you’re still an option,” she said.
After some time, I realized I was being paperclipped, and that I didn’t need him anymore. If I meant nothing to him, he meant nothing to me. I deserved better; I deserved to be happy. I didn’t need to put up with his behaviors or let him use me anymore.
I plan to never fall for “paperclipping” again, and in hopes you don’t either, here are six clear signs you’re being “paperclipped” — and encouraging affirmations to tell yourself if you are.
1. They message you then ghost you repeatedly.
You may have relationships where the other person only contacts you intermittently. They may say they’re just “a bad texter” or “super busy.” And in some situations, that’s true. Over 15 million American adults struggle with social anxiety, and people may have bigger priorities than their relationships.
But sometimes, the reason for such behavior is murkier and less innocent.
A “paperclipper” wants to feel validated and as if others are romantically interested in them, but they fear getting hurt. They want to feel important to you, but not stay long enough to where you could abandon or reject them, even if you’ve shown no signs of doing so. They’re probably emotionally immature and struggle with low self-esteem.
So they message you to make sure you’re still interested, but then leave before you can. They don’t truly value you or your relationship, but how you can make them feel.
Just because a person doesn’t value you doesn’t mean you aren’t valuable.
2. Your conversations aren’t meaningful, nor do they move your relationship forward.
Not every conversation with someone will contain deep discussions or dark life stories, and that’s perfectly okay. In fact, that’s probably healthy to some degree.
However, I want you to have relationships that are truly meaningful and encouraging — and a “paperclipper” can’t give you that. Because they’re scared to have a genuine relationship, they won’t make any efforts to make it so. They’re using you and testing you, and neither requires anything deep or meaningful.
They may send brief responses or not go in deeper when you want to go in deeper. They may seem interested enough, but a part of you still feels empty or like you’re the one who has to carry the conversation.
If you don’t already have them, you will find meaningful relationships with loving people. You don’t deserve to put 110 percent of your energy into a relationship that’s giving you nothing in return.
3. They randomly come back into your life.
When we don’t talk to someone for a while, or they didn’t seem interested in the past, we may understandably believe that the relationship is over. We may have accepted that we likely won’t talk to them again, and we move on with our lives.
But for a “paperclipper,” coming back into your life after a long period is exactly what they do. They may not have a good, clear reason why they reached out, leaving you confused and surprised. If them popping up seems random and suspicious, it probably is.
Your response is how they test and gauge your interest; it’s what they use to feel better about themselves, depending on what you say. However, I want to be clear that regardless of what you say, you aren’t at fault. The “paperclipper” is the one in the wrong here.
Trust your gut with people’s intentions, and don’t feel bad for your responses to a “paperclipper,” regardless if they’re positive or negative.
4. They’re flaky and don’t seem very interested in you.
Out of politeness, interest, or another reason, you may try to make plans with this person. You may believe their disinterest is something wrong with you, something you did wrong.
But in response, the “paperclipper” will be flaky. They may say no to that plan immediately or beforehand. They lack interest in you, how you’re doing, and activities you want to engage in with them. After a while, you may wonder why they’re messaging you at all after their behavior. Their true colors are definitely shining through.
You deserve to spend time with people who want to spend time with you and are interested in you. Nothing is wrong with you if you’re dealing with a “paperclipper.”
5. They give you an unreliable sense of hope.
You may feel hopeful when someone who ghosted you messages you again, or when they initially say “yes” to plans you initiate. They may make believable excuses about past behavior and may seem ready to change.
However, a “paperclipper” won’t follow through with the hope they bring. Unfortunately, they’ll continue to ghost you and cancel plans. And then they’ll repeat the behavior over and over again. They want your excitement and interest in them and their time, but not the activities or plans that come along with that.
You may lose hope in them after this happens on a few occasions, or feel wary of times when they say, “Hey!” or, “Yeah, I’d love to!”
Feeling hopeful isn’t anything to be ashamed about, and you’re also allowed to feel wary. Trust those feelings and know the “paperclipper’s” behavior doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.
6. They reach out but don’t seem to have a goal or activity in mind.
Not only do conversations with a “paperclipper” feel meaningless and go nowhere, but they also don’t have a legitimate purpose, or one that could benefit you. While a “paperclipper” may initiate conversation, they aren’t great at making conversation. They don’t truly want to know how you’re doing, and they don’t want to hang out. Conversations with them may feel boring or confusing, leaving you feeling empty and unsatisfied. This is because they have one purpose in messaging you: They want to make sure they’re still an option in your mind.
You don’t have to engage in conversation with this person or feel bad about their inability to make meaningful conversation.
What “paperclipping” looks like
When people “paperclip,” they reach out to someone randomly with no intention other than to see if the person is still interested. They’re flaky, don’t intend to make plans or move the relationship forward, and will repeatedly ghost and message you. You may feel confused and hurt.
Why people “paperclip” others
People who engage in “paperclipping” are likely struggling with low self-esteem, abandonment concerns, and insecurities. They want to feel like others are interested in them because it makes them feel better about themselves, but they don’t want to stay long enough or build a meaningful relationship in which they might get hurt. I explain this not to excuse their behavior, but to explain it (and to show that it has nothing to do with the other person’s worth).
How to stop “paperclipping” behavior in someone else
While we can’t control other people’s behavior, and while we’re not at fault for what they’ve done, we can make helpful changes. For example, you can stop messaging the person back. You can block their number. You can let them know you’re not interested in talking anymore and explain how negatively they’ve made you feel.
What to remember if you realize someone is “paperclipping” you
If someone is or has “paperclipped” you, please remember that it’s not your fault. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good or attractive person, nor does it mean you did something wrong. You don’t need them in your life, and you’ll find people who treat you well and are worth your time, attention, and effort.
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