What is paperclipping? Another annoying dating trend explained

The pattern of behavior consists of dropping off the face of the planet after a few dates only to follow up months later to see if you'll still respond to their aimless questions.
Illustration of a paper clip posing in a sexy way.
Paperclipping is a behavior based on "Clippy," the Microsoft help tool known for popping up whenever you didn't need him.Cari Vander Yacht / for NBC News
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By Danielle Page

Online dating, social media and the general ease of communicating via text have made it easier than ever to behave like a jerk (for lack of better word) — especially where romantic endeavors are concerned. Luckily, the internet has also gifted us coping mechanisms in the form of relatable memes that make us feel less alone in our search for love — no matter how awry it goes.

Illustrator Samantha Rothenberg is the artist behind one such Instagram account, Violet Clair. Her signature illustrations show what it's like to date in a time where everyone seems to be acting like fools, bringing the most puzzling yet extremely relatable dating behaviors to life, making us all feel a little less alone in our pursuit for love.

One of her recent illustrations depicted her rendition of "Clippy," the Microsoft paper clip — notorious for popping up whenever you didn't need him, offering suggestions you never asked for. Kind of like that guy you went on a few dates with who you haven't heard from in months who just texted out of the blue to ask, “how are you?”

"I dated a guy briefly, though he'd continue to text me randomly weeks and months after it fizzled," says Rothenberg on what inspired the illustration. "Sometimes I'd answer with a monosyllabic response, and sometimes I'd just ignore him. He eventually took the hint and I never heard from him again."

Though the term paperclipping is new, Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist based in California, says this pattern of behavior — dropping off the face of the planet after a few dates only to follow up months later to see if they'll still get a response — is not.

"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," she explains.

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.

Why do people paperclip?

As Manly explains, it's not you, it's them. "Paperclipping is generally a sign that the individual is emotionally immature and unable to engage in a meaningful relationship," she says. "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." The kicker? "Such a person never stays long enough to experience actual connection due to the underlying fears and low sense of self-worth," she says.

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It's a pattern Rothenberg has seen again and again. "I have met people on a dating site that continually do this, and in fact, seem to not want a relationship," she says. "When asked, they will respond that they are just not sure about a relationship. So they meet people, disappear and then show back up."

How it can be harmful

Unlike Microsoft's "Clippy," who was simply a nuisance that could be silenced, dealing with a paperclipper can be harmful to both parties involved. "The person being paperclipped may feel violated, irritated or highly confused," says Manly. "It generally does not feel good to have a former dating partner reappear out of nowhere; this can induce anxiety and stress."

As for the paperclipper? "The behavior is self-destructive, as engaging in immature behavior is generally toxic to the self (and to others)," says Manly. "The paperclipper’s patterns may, if left unchecked, lead to greater instability in the individual’s relationships and decrease the paperclipper’s ability to connect in a truly bonded way."

And as Rothenberg points out, if the paperclipper ever actually does end up wanting to pursue something more serious, their behavior has likely ruined those chances. "Much like the boy who cried wolf, it is impossible to believe a paper-clipper if they are finally actually serious," she says.

Signs you're being paperclipped

The most obvious sign of paperclipping is that long lag in communication followed by a text that never amounts to anything, as depicted in Rothenberg’s design. "You meet someone and perhaps date a bit, then you are ghosted," she says. "After some random amount of time, you receive a text or call asking how you are. There might be a few messages exchanged, and then the pattern repeats. There is never an explanation for the disappearance or reappearance."

"Be on the lookout for the seemingly innocent text that reads, 'How are you?'" agrees Megan Cannon, a licensed clinical social worker practicing in Illinois. "If you're feeling perplexed by the random act, and you're pondering responding, consider the possibly that you are being paperclipped. After all this time, do they really care about how you're doing?"

If you're being paperclipped, Manly says the communication you'll receive (when you do hear from them) won't be meaningful — it will be clear this person has no interest in connecting on a personal level. "The contact will have the tone of, 'Hey! I’m back! Don’t forget about me! I’m special,'" Manly says.

How to stop a paperclipper

Can a paperclipper ever change? It's a long shot, but Manly says certain circumstances can make them rethink their behavior. "An emotionally immature person such as a paperclipper may ultimately discover that he has deep feelings for someone — if the object of his affection rejects him (due to prior paperclipping behavior or other issue), the paperclipper may then acknowledge the pain and use it to stimulate personal change."

The fastest way to put an end to being paperclipped? Stop giving the person what they're after. "Do not respond to their messages," says Cannon. "Remember that they are just looking to engage with you in any way. They are looking for a response or a reaction. If your first thought is something other than delete, you are letting them win by giving them your energy."

After you've cut off contact, Manly says it's important to use this experience as an opportunity to reflect on what you actually want out of your next relationship. "Set your sights on the type of behavior you do want in relationships," she says. "It’s so easy to get focused on what we don’t want (e.g., the behaviors of the paperclipper) that we forget to invest the majority of our energy into what we do want from a relationship."

Rothenberg's method for dealing with a paperclipper? "Block the person's number, or simply delete the messages when they come in. Think of this as putting down the yo-yo."

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