“I feel like I was unintentionally leading him on,” a friend of mine told me after a coworker confessed that he liked her in a romantic way. She was sorry for hurting his feelings and felt like she was supposed to apologize. But was she really to blame?
If you’ve ever been led on, or if you’re wondering if someone is doing it to you right now, you might be feeling used and hurt.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever been accused of leading someone on, and you didn’t mean to do it, it’s confusing and can make you feel ashamed and guilty.
You’ve come to the right place to find out why people do it, if you are doing it and how to stop, and how to recognize if it’s happening to you.
What Is The Definition Of Leading Someone On?
“To lead someone on, phrasal verb. To persuade someone to believe something that is untrue.” – Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus
Synonyms include “to trick (someone) into believing” and “to mislead by lying.”
It’s clear from these definitions that this is a deliberate act. This means that there’s no such thing as leading someone on unintentionally.
Being led on means being deceived into expecting something by someone who has no intention of following through with it, and it isn’t limited only to romantic relationships.
For instance, your employer might be leading you on by suggesting the possibility of a raise or promotion yet have no plan of actually making it happen.
In other words, someone who would lead someone on is aware that they’re doing it and realizes the consequences of their actions. If you’re the one doing it, you already know.
5 Reasons Why People Lead Someone On
Even though it’s not always done out of a place of cruelty, being led on can feel that way to the person who’s experiencing it. It can have a damaging effect on their self-esteem and lead to heartbreak.
Why would someone feign interest in another person and make them believe they will get together? If you don’t want someone, why pretend you do?
A lot of people lead people on to get what they want from the existing relationship.
People who consciously lead someone on usually do it for one of the following reasons, or a combination of them:
1. They enjoy the attention
The feeling of power from being liked is addictive for some people. The rush of being wanted makes them come back for more, even if they don’t want to go any further than bask in the attention they’ve been receiving.
They don’t stop to think about what it’s like for the other person. Receiving compliments and feeling attractive gives them a thrill and feeling of excitement that doesn’t take into account the other person’s emotions.
People like this might hop from person to person, looking for more and more admiration and flattery.
2. They’re insecure
An insecure person might be leading someone on because knowing someone wants to be in a relationship with them gives them validation.
Even if they aren’t actually interested in the person or a relationship with them, they feel accepted, so they keep them around to get as much of it as possible.
If they’re insecure about their worth or don’t know how else to feel approval, they take any chance to fill an emotional void, even if it means making false promises.
This kind of person might string you along for a long time, keeping you hooked until they find their next source of validation.
3. They’re uncertain
You might have had your first date, and they went home unsure if they were interested. This progressed into a long period of them thinking it over to decide whether they liked you or not.
All along, you’ve been waiting and hoping because you liked them from the first moment. What is a nuisance to them might be a very emotional experience for the person they’re leading on.
They might be confused, afraid of commitment, unsure whether they want a relationship at all, so they’ll keep you on standby or in a situationship.
With this person, you can be sure that they’ll never pick you, and their hesitation is just a way to keep you in place until someone else comes along.
4. They’re stringing you along
They’re doing this to others, or they’re already in a relationship. While you’re thinking about a relationship with them, they’re thinking about the next person in line.
This person believes they have their pick, so they’re weighing their options and stringing you along. If you want exclusivity, you’ll probably never get it from someone like this.
You could say that people like this are cowards afraid to make a decision. You shouldn’t care about someone who makes you a possibility instead of a priority.
5. They only want sex
A relationship based on sex needs to be defined from the start, or someone is very likely to get hurt. It may be purely physical for them, and you might already have feelings.
If it’s not an agreed-upon friends with benefits situation, you might be expecting your relationship to move in a more stable direction. Someone who is leading you on won’t tell you that they don’t have any intention of doing so.
Make your self-care a priority and walk away if you think they’re using you. Waiting for them to change their mind will only hurt you.
How Do You Tell If You’re Leading Someone On?
Context is important when it comes to relationships. Some things can have more than one meaning, depending on the situation.
If you believe that someone wants to have a relationship with you, yet you don’t feel the same, giving them even the smallest bit of attention might be considered leading them on.
If you don’t intend to get into the kind of relationship they want and continue doing things they might construe as interest, you’re leading them on.
Provided you don’t suspect that someone is interested in you, the following are not signs of leading someone on:
• Being kind
• Communicating often
• Enjoys someone’s company and hanging out
• Opening up and sharing details about yourself
• Showing interest in them as a person
• Giving them help and support
If you think they might want a certain kind of relationship, the first thing you should do is talk to them. The easiest way to know how they feel is to ask them and let them know where they stand.
If the other person is interested in you the way you aren’t interested in them, everything that could be interpreted as intimate might lead them on.
When in doubt, ask yourself if you would do it with your other friends.
Things that may be signs of leading someone on if they like you:
• Making promises
Put it this way, if you know they’re into you, and you give them hope when you don’t plan on changing your mind, you’re leading them on.
How To Handle Being Led On And Stop Doing It To Others
Now that we’ve learned why people do it and how to know if you’re doing it to someone else, let’s take a look at the ways it can happen.
As we mentioned, it all depends on the context and intentions – whether you know if someone is interested in you and if you’re interested in them.
These conditions allow for three possible situations: you intentionally leading someone on, realizing that a friend has developed feelings, and someone you thought of as a friend showing that they’ve wanted something else the whole time.
1. You’ve been intentionally leading someone on
Feelings that aren’t reciprocated can lead to pain, but having false hope feels even worse. It can make a person feel used and devastated.
Leading someone on is selfish. Knowing you’ll never love them back and keeping them hooked shows a lack of concern for their feelings and well-being.
You’re probably aware that you’re doing it and want to stop, or you wouldn’t care to look it up. Where do you go from here?
• Make amends. Be honest and kind. Apologize and be genuine. Tell them you’re sorry for your actions and hurting them.
If you’re not sure about them, or you’re keeping them as an option, let them go immediately. You are well aware that you’ll never come to love them, so stop wasting their time.
Be prepared for them to hate you. This isn’t about you right now – it’s about them. Be conscious of the fact that you’ve knowingly caused them pain.
• Work on yourself. Think about why you pretended to care when you know how they felt and that you didn’t feel the same.
If you’re insecure and looking for external validation in the form of love from someone you don’t feel the same for, you might first need to work on yourself.
If you crave attention, focus on self-love until you feel like you’re happy with yourself.
2. A friend developed a crush
Usually, when a person feels that their friend might like them a little more than they like them, they start to wonder if they’ve been leading them on. A lot of times, you don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings, so you’re not sure how to deal with it.
You might be feeling guilty and wondering, “If they do have feelings for me, do the things I do seem like I’m leading them on?”
You can’t force yourself to be attracted to someone and vice versa. A good friend who appreciates you will understand that.
• Clear the air. This is a delicate situation, and you want to approach it that way. Be very compassionate but assertive. Clearly let them know that you don’t see yourself in a romantic relationship with them.
Let them choose what to do, and give them all the time and space they need.
• Don’t be hard on yourself. Someone who is genuinely being friendly and not playing games has nothing to apologize for.
Being gentle while letting your friend know you don’t feel the same way is one thing – taking responsibility for something that isn’t your fault is another.
You can enjoy someone’s company without being attracted to them. The other person might develop a crush if they feel attracted to you and if you’re friendly.
3. They pretended to be a friend
It’s normal to like someone without them knowing. There can be a lot of reasons someone won’t come out and make their feelings known.
However, it becomes suspicious when the only reason for any kindness throughout your relationship is hope that it will butter you up and you’ll get together.
Let’s put it this way: if someone is deliberately giving you the wrong impression that they want to be friends while they’re after something else, it’s you who’s being led on.
It could even be a case of someone who calls themselves a nice guy but is actually only pretending to be nice to manipulate you into a relationship.
Some red flags that the person isn’t actually your friend but that they have false pretenses are:
• “Friendzone.” Using this word to describe your relationship shows that their friendship was fake and that they don’t value your company, only what they think they can get from you.
• Entitlement. If they’re talking about what they have “invested” into you (feelings, time, money), they’re expecting something in exchange. By thinking of your relationship as if it were a transaction, they’re showing their intentions.
• Refusal to accept rejection. If they’re not able to accept that you’re not interested and keep trying to get you to change your mind, they’re clearly showing that they don’t care about your feelings.
Such people feel entitled and put the blame on others when their expectations aren’t met. They expect payback for their politeness, feigned care, and friendliness. You don’t owe anyone your heart and your body.
It’s always best to keep a person like this out of your life. Be firm and protect yourself.
The term “leading someone on” is often used to explain why someone’s romantic feelings aren’t being reciprocated despite expectations. Depending on what those expectations are based on, they might be right, or they might have the wrong impression.
Believing that someone who’s continuously flirting with you and hinting at romantic interest is planning to accept your feelings is different from misinterpreting someone’s friendliness.
Not leading someone on is all about intention and responsibility. If you think they like you, and your actions might make them like you more, talk to them if you’re not interested.