What it’s like to realize you’re being “paperclipped” in a relationship

Pretty significant events can happen in 20 minutes. 

I still vividly remember driving for 20 minutes on slick roads covered in ice, snow, and salt to get to our first date in his dorm room. 

When I got there, we cuddled on the couch and watched “The Office” (20 minutes not counting commercials). 

And after 20 minutes of being together, I knew he was special. I was teetering on the edge of falling hard, regardless of the fact we hadn’t known each other long. After years of unhealthy relationships, I finally felt cherished, cared for, and appreciated on a romantic level. 

Then, suddenly, his texts were few and far between. He spent nights getting drunk with potential frat brothers, and he left me behind.

But that wasn’t the worst part. I woke up—on Valentine’s Day—to this message from him: I just don’t think I have enough time to talk to anyone right now. I’m sorry.”

Moving On (Or So I Thought)

After the initial shock and anger wore off, I couldn’t stop myself from crying. He had restored my faith around men and love, and now it was gone. Not only were he and I over, but so were the hope and excitement I’d finally allowed myself to have.

As time passed, I moved on and got over him. I dated new people. My friends comforted me and kept me laughing. I reminded myself life is about more than romance, and I threw myself into extracurriculars.

However, six months later, he randomly texted me, saying he had more time. My heart was thrilled and my body felt electrified. I had hope again. Filled with excitement, I responded quickly to every text and updated him about my life, even introducing humor in hopes it would make him stay, make him love me.

But again, our texting didn’t last for long—probably 20 minutes—and that was the extent of it. The continuation of 20-minute markers in our relationship would’ve been funny if it didn’t hurt so much.

After he ghosted me again, I had to re-learn how to handle the ambiguous loss I felt. Cue the coping behaviors from before: other dates, other hookups, other relationships, and other time-consuming matters.

And then—you guessed it—months later, he surfaced again with a message on Snapchat. I continued to fall for his trap at least two or three times before eventually realizing something so crucial, again in about 20 minutes: 

He didn’t deserve me. I was worth more than intermittent texts. He didn’t truly want me. The stop-and-go was exhausting and jarring, and I finally admitted loneliness was better.

What is “Paperclipping?”

Later, I learned the ghosting-then-contacting cycle he engaged in is called “paperclipping.” The term was inspired by Samantha Rothenberg’s illustration of “Clippy,” the paperclip icon on Microsoft, and coined by Metro. Like Clippy, “paperclippers” randomly pop up not to help, but to ensure you don’t forget them.

According to clinical psychologist and relationship expert Carly Marie Manly, paperclippers engage in this behavior because of insecurity, loneliness, and low self-esteem. 

“Rather than engaging in genuine relationships, those who have paperclipping tendencies tend to use the ‘idea’ of relationships to gain a sense of self-importance and alleviate feelings of isolation or boredom,” shares Manly. “Those who paperclip others incorrectly assume that they are more important or worthy if they have people ‘waiting’ in their queue.” 

This may stem from past trauma and relationship-specific insecurities, according to Chris Pleines of datingscout.com. “Most people paperclip others because they might have unconscious fears of being abandoned, rejected, or not being needed. These feelings arise mostly from generational trauma,” he explains.

As a result, paperclippers may not be ready for a fully committed, authentic relationship, or “able to lean into authentic and meaningful connection,” says licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert Babita Spinelli. “They are uncertain or uncomfortable in committing themselves to a relationship.”

Knowing those reasons doesn’t excuse what he did, but having explanations for his actions—especially ones reinforcing it wasn’t about me—helps me breathe easier. What I’ve learned is that paperclippers are trying to meet their needs and have relationships, but don’t know how to do so healthily.

“Instead of communicating in an assertive manner, the person is engaging in manipulative and unhealthy behavior to get their needs met,” explains Marquita Johnson, a licensed professional counselor.

In retrospect, I’ve realized that moving away from this manipulation wasn’t a step toward loneliness, per se, but a step toward self-respect. I wasn’t saying “no” to a healthy relationship; rather, I was saying “no” to being used. And self-respect like that is something I’ve craved for years.

What to Do If You’re Being Paperclipped

I’m sharing all of this in hopes that anyone in a similar situation won’t have to experience even 20 minutes of the pain and confusion I did. My hope is for you to recognize these paperclipping behaviors for what they really are—and focus on finding someone who is emotionally available.

But if you do find yourself deep in a paperclipping relationship, Manly encourages self-compassion first and foremost. “It’s important to not judge yourself in any way,” she says.

When you’re ready, craft your message to the paperclipper. Manly suggests something along the lines of: “I’m into genuine relationships, so I’m moving forward. Please delete my contact information.”

Both Spinelli and Pleines recommend not responding to the paperclipper’s messages at all, saying that is the most effective way to stop the cycle. “They want a response or reaction for their own security,” says Spinelli. “It will only lead to an emotional rollercoaster, and investing your emotional energy and time will only lead to more frustration, hurt, or anger when the paperclipper disappears again.”

If you’re not ready to cut them off completely, consider setting boundaries. “Acknowledge that the person is not capable of providing what you need and want in a partner,” suggests Johnson. “Boundaries are flexible and can be adjusted once someone earns the space to be in your life. Boundaries communicate what is safe and secure for you.”

Ultimately, remember you deserve a relationship with someone who shares their love for you consistently and wholeheartedly. You don’t deserve to be used, and you will find someone who treats you right—for longer than 20 minutes.