6 Signs You Are Leading Someone On Unintentionally And What To Do

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leading someone on

What is the meaning of leading someone on? Reminds me of a scene from the movie 500 Days of Summer, when Summer says, “We’re just fr…” to which Tom interrupts by saying, “No! Don’t pull that with me! This is not how you treat your friend! Kissing in the copy room? Holding hands in IKEA? Shower sex? Come on!”

Clearly, not being on the same page can be hurtful and confusing. In modern day relationships, where people don’t like to put labels on anything, it often happens that one person falls for the other. And the latter gets blamed for giving mixed signals. But what exactly is the meaning of leading someone on in a relationship? And how to stop leading someone on?

To get detailed insights on leading someone on meaning, we spoke to emotional wellness and mindfulness coach Pooja Priyamvada (certified in Psychological and Mental Health First Aid from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of Sydney). She specializes in counseling for extramarital affairs, breakups, separation, grief and loss, to name a few.

What Does It Mean To Lead Someone On?

According to Pooja, “Leading someone on meaning is to make a person believe that your intentions or feelings are different from what they actually are. In the context of dating and relationships, it means to make someone believe that you are romantically interested in them when you are fully aware that you are not.”

Reminds me of the lyrics of a song by Ruth B, “Mixed signals, mixed signals. They’re killing me. I don’t know what you want. But I know what I need. The goodbyes, the hellos, the I need you, no I don’t. Every time I start to close the door. You knock and I let you in. Loving you is my greatest sin…”

And why would you lead someone to think that you want more, when you actually know that you don’t? Here are some of the possible reasons:

  • You like the attention
  • You are trying to get over an ex
  • You are afraid of your feelings
  • You’re insecure about yourself
  • You have a habit of self-sabotaging
  • You are too afraid to make them feel bad by expressing the truth
  • You just like people falling for you, but then you get bored
  • You didn’t intend to lead them on, but you chickened out at the last minute at the thought of a real relationship
  • You are bored and lonely and need someone who can be available any time to fill that void
  • You didn’t lead them on. You are just friends with them, and they misunderstood your intent/words

Whatever your reason is for leading someone on, here are some of the signs that you are doing it, without even being aware of it.

Related Reading: Wondering, “Why Do I Self-Sabotage My Relationships?” – Expert Answers

What Are The Signs You Are Leading Someone On Unintentionally?

Pooja articulates, “Well, these are some of the signs you are leading someone on — You say what you think they want to hear, no matter how you feel. You don’t make plans with this person. You are not planning a future with them either, but for now, they are a stopgap for you. You can’t see yourself becoming an item and definitely don’t refer to ‘us’, but you keep the relationship going anyway.” What does this mean? Let’s find out by diving deeper into the signs you are leading someone on unintentionally.

1. Flirting and talking to them all the damn time

talking to them all the damn time
Talking to them all the damn time

Telling someone every single detail about your life every single day can blur the lines of your friendship. Even friendship has its limits. Are you unknowingly flirting? You might be wondering, “I am very playful with them. We constantly flirt, but in a healthy way. Is flirting leading someone on? Even when we are in groups, my attention is centered around them. Could it be that I am leading them on?”

Pooja advises, “Being playful is often perceived as showing romantic/sexual interest. Flirting adds to that mix, obviously, nobody flirts with someone they are not attracted to. Yes, this could give them mixed signals about what your intent is.

“Saying I love you when you have only platonic feelings is misleading the other in various ways. Also staying connected on the phone for hours could also be leading someone on to believe you are solely devoted to them.”

2. Hanging out with them exclusively

Pooja says, “Hanging out exclusively with someone doesn’t always mean that you are leading them on but to some people, getting such undivided attention and time from someone would imply a romantic interest. There is a possibility of some miscommunication or misperception here.”

For you, going on a long drive with them with music on could be just one great drive. But for the other person, it can mean something more. They might be mistaken into believing it’s a date. They might be reading between the lines or finding subtext in your simplest of actions and believe that you are giving them the ‘vibe’. They might be assuming things and this can backfire really badly on you, and them. Unrequited love hurts, after all.

3. Ambiguity on defining the relationship

It may be a casual relationship from your side. But if you shy away from specifying it, it may be one of the signs that you are leading someone on. Saying things like “I don’t want to define the relationship” or “Labels ruin everything” or “Let’s just go with the flow” can actually confuse the person on the other end.

If you feel friendship from your side and know that the other person likes you, be a little careful and clear about your intentions. And if it’s just physical, be clear about that too. Leading someone on is cruel. Keeping them around to stroke your ego is unfair. Leading someone on for attention could even stem from your low self-esteem and insecurities. 

Pooja emphasizes, “All humans feel nice when they get love and validation, especially from someone they adore. But if that is the only source of solace to your ego then that’s a problem. Don’t keep someone around just to seek validation without any mutual feelings for them, that’s the equivalent to emotional abuse.”

Related Reading: Tips To Practice Emotional Attunement To Transform Your Relationships

4. Signs you are leading someone on? Non-platonic touching

Is flirting leading someone on? And what is the difference between being friendly and being flirty? Pooja points out, “The difference between being flirty and being friendly is that flirting would have a romantic color to it. Platonic friends can touch each other if both parties are clear that this is just camaraderie and not romantic or sexual. This needs to be well-defined.”

So, touching someone in a non-platonic way could be one of the signs that you are unintentionally leading someone on. High-fiving, back rubbing, laying your head on their shoulder, or hugging them are often considered platonic but make sure you don’t blur the lines and end up misleading them. 

After all, not all best friends turn into couples, like in the movie One Day. So if you are friends with someone and sitting in the close vicinity of them comes naturally to you, make sure you both are on the same page about the ‘friends’ part. It could be that they are your platonic soulmate. But the lines can easily get blurred. And nobody wants to end up having an emotional breakdown due to one-sided love, like Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding or Lily Collins in Love, Rosie.

Non-platonic touching
Platonic friends can touch each other if both are clear that it is not sexual

5. Displaying jealousy

What is one of the sure-shot signs of leading someone on? Displaying jealousy when your friend hangs out with someone else or is being hit on. Your jealousy might just be platonic but it could mislead them into thinking that you are being possessive about them and acting from a place of love.

My friend Sarah is going through a similar situation. She doesn’t want to commit to her best friend Paul. But when someone else gives Paul attention, she gets mad and feels extremely jealous. She fights with him and feels possessive when he makes another woman the center of his world. Sarah is not just unintentionally leading someone on but leading herself on too. Don’t be Sarah, and don’t torture your best friend and your own self. Leading someone on is cruel. So, look out for the signs a girl is leading you on and toying with your heart.

6. Acting like a couple

If you shower a particular person with compliments and gifts, it could be one of the signs of leading someone on. You have let barriers and boundaries go because you are comfortable with them. But they might take it in a different sense altogether. 

What is the meaning of leading someone on? If you both have fights and you sort them out like a couple would. If you go after each other and beg each other to not give up on the bond, you both are leading each other on and might get hurt in this process. Don’t be in a relationship without even knowing it. And don’t have relationship problems when you are not in a relationship. So, always look out for signs a casual relationship is getting serious.

What To Do When You’re Leading Someone On?

Once you have realized that you are leading someone on, ask yourself some questions and introspect. Do you genuinely like them or do you enjoy leading someone on for attention? Do you want to have something on the lines of a relationship with them? If the answer is yes, please be clear about your intentions. And if the answer is no, you should take the following steps.

Related Reading: 9 Expert Tips To Figure Out What Do You Want In A Relationship

1. Be honest

What should you do if you have realized that you are leading someone on in a relationship? Pooja says, “It is not healthy to lead someone on, not just for them but for you too. It is better to have clarity about the nature of the relationship and your interactions with them, and if you have even the slightest inkling that the other person is perceiving this differently than you are, then you must clarify at the onset.”

And what if you are unsure about your feelings? What if you want to go on more dates to figure it all out? Pooja says, “It is common to be unsure about your feelings. One needs to be honest and mention this confusion clearly. If you need more dates for clarity, the other person needs to be told precisely that. One should only proceed if they are also on the same page about this idea, or call it quits.” Hence, be clear and honest instead of playing mind games in relationships.

2. How to stop leading someone on? Apologize if you must

Should you apologize if you have led someone on? Pooja answers, “If they assume something you didn’t intend, it is a good idea to clarify right away. You must make it clear to them that you only think of them as a friend. Yes, you must apologize if you have unintentionally led them on. It isn’t your fault but you are a participant in this misunderstanding.”

You can say something on the lines of “Hey, I am really sorry if I have led you on in any way. You have always been a great friend to me and I apologize if I have made you believe otherwise. If my actions have hurt you in any way, please understand that it was not my intention.”

on more than friends

3. Give them space

Pooja points out, “If they are your best friend and know you well and still feel this way about you, it surely can’t be totally unfounded. It would be a good idea to take a break from each other for some time and then re-evaluate your relationship.”

How to stop leading someone on? If you both are friends, it might get complicated. But if your friend is clear that they want to keep no contact for a while, don’t push them. Respect their need for distance and take a step back. Let them take their space to get over you. It’s unfair to coerce them to be a part of an equation that is toxic for them and their mental health. 

Related Reading: What Does ‘Holding Space For Someone’ Mean And How To Do It?

And if and when they come back, have a clear conversation. What are the actions that constitute leading someone on? Where can you draw a boundary? How can you avoid getting the lines blurred?

To know more about leading someone on, you can also work with a therapist and understand more on what you can do to stop it. If this is a common pattern in your life, a licensed professional can find out reasons for such behavior. Our counselors from Bonobology’s panel are just a click away.

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