Unveiling Breadcrumbing In Dating – Signs, Impact, Responses

Breadcrumbing is a covert controlling tactic that many daters use to attract someone while being emotionally unavailable all along. Find out how to spot it and handle it.

Online dating platforms have made it easier for people to meet and connect. But it has also led to some novel fallouts:

  • We see new trends like victimization, deception, catfishing, blackmailing, sexually impulsive behavior, objectification, gamification of relationships, and cyberstalking.
  • And other behaviors such as benching, ghosting, haunting, orbiting, friendzoning, slow-fading, and breadcrumbing.

The term “breadcrumbing” comes from “breadcrumbs,” which means “small pieces of dried bread.” It’s also called “Hansel and Gretelling,” since it means leaving behind a trail of breadcrumbs for someone to find what they’re looking for, like in the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.”

Breadcrumbing is not an official psychological term or diagnosis, though it has been researched upon.

Let’s deep dive to find out how you can quickly spot breadcrumbing in dating, and protect yourself before you get hurt.

Overview

1. Breadcrumbing in Dating: Breadcrumbing is a dating term where someone gives just enough attention to keep the hope of a relationship alive. It can be emotionally damaging.

2. Harmful Effects of Breadcrumbing: Breadcrumbing includes messages, praise, and flirtatious texts, driven by the anticipation of a reward. This behavior can trigger addictive tendencies.

3. Motives Behind Breadcrumbing: People breadcrumb for various reasons, like ego satisfaction, inability to end something, or loneliness. Regardless of the motive, it’s unacceptable behavior.

4. Consequences of Breadcrumbing: Breadcrumbing leads to feelings of helplessness and extended periods of uncertainty and loneliness. Prolonged ostracism can have severe psychological effects.

5. Surviving Breadcrumbing: Being a survivor of breadcrumbing can lead to isolation and mistrust of others. It’s crucial to maintain clear boundaries and seek support when needed.

6. Confronting Breadcrumbing: To combat breadcrumbing, call out the behavior and discuss your experiences with trusted individuals. Address the issue assertively to recover more quickly.

7. Self-Care and Boundaries: Prioritize self-care and establish clear boundaries when dealing with breadcrumbing. Communicate your needs and emotions clearly to protect your self-respect.

8. Taking Control: In situations of breadcrumbing, take control of your well-being. Engage in uplifting activities, connect with meaningful people, and ensure others respect your boundaries and self-respect.


What Is Breadcrumbing In Dating Relationships

Breadcrumbing in dating involves sending flirtatious but non-committal signals to lure a romantic partner without actually meaning to follow through to a serious relationship. Breadcrumbers drop small pieces (“breadcrumbs”) of nice gestures so that someone can follow the trail into their (love) trap.

It includes sending occasional messages, brief phone calls, social media interactions, sporadic dating plans, and even provocative pictures or videos, to “lead someone on.”

The playful, flirtatious interactions in breadcrumbing typically occur irregularly and unpredictably, without any intention of following through.

What is Breadcrumbing in relationships

It can happen in casual dating, budding romances, established partnerships, and even in professional relationships. However, it’s more common among online and app-based daters who manipulate others by playing on their desire to find love.

Breadcrumbing is defined as “the act of sending out flirtatious, but non-committal text messages (i.e., “breadcrumbs”) to lure a sexual partner without expending much effort” or “when the “crush” has no intentions of taking things further, but they like the attention.”

Navarro, Larrañaga, & Yubero, 2020
  • It is a manipulative tactic where a person leads someone on using online platforms, such as social media or texting, with no intention of becoming romantically involved with them.
  • This behavior is often driven by the need for attention and validation (a typical trait of narcissists), with some others doing it to boost their self-esteem or feeling powerful.
  • One of the red flags in a relationship with a breadcrumber is the inconsistency in their expression of interest. They may make plans with their romantic interests but end up canceling them or not showing up, leading to confusion and frustration.

Breadcrumbing is one of the forms of manipulation that has also been defined as “a euphemism for leading someone on by contacting them intermittently to keep the other person interested”, and “sporadically sending someone flirtatious yet non-committal text messages or random social media “likes” to keep the person’s dating expectations of a possible relationship going, although the sender has no actual intentions of dating”.

– Khattar, Upadhyay, & Navarro, Young Adults’ Perception of Breadcrumbing Victimization in Dating Relationships, 2023

Why Do People Engage In Breadcrumbing?

Breadcrumbing in a relationship can be motivated by various psychological factors, and those who engage in this may have these reasons:

  1. Fear of Commitment: Breadcrumbers often harbor an unexpressed fear of commitment. This fear makes them reluctant to fully invest in a relationship.
  2. Narcissistic Personality: Some breadcrumbers exhibit narcissistic personality traits. This can lead to manipulative behaviors without a sense of guilt.
  3. Avoidance of Confrontation: Breadcrumbers tend to avoid direct confrontation or ending a relationship, preferring to keep their options open for potentially better matches.
  4. Desire for Control: Breadcrumbing can also be a tactic to exert control over the other person’s emotions and actions. It gives the breadcrumber a sense of power.
  5. Attachment Issues: In some cases, breadcrumbing may arise from attachment issues. This can lead to feelings of insecurity, co-dependence, or avoidant behavior in relationships.
  6. Past Trauma: Repressed memories of past trauma can contribute to breadcrumbing behavior. Trust issues and emotional vulnerability can make it challenging for individuals to form meaningful connections.
  7. Need for Validation: Some individuals engage in breadcrumbing because they have a constant need for reassurance. Attention from multiple people boosts their self-esteem.
  8. Existing Relationships: Certain breadcrumbers may already be in another relationship but seek validation from others, creating complex situations.
Top 5 Reasons Fearful Avoidants Breadcrumb In Relationships | Codependent vs Interdependent

5 Main Themes in Breadcrumbing

Breadcrumbers tend to be sporadic, unpredictable, and less invested in getting together with the person they are leading on. However, they act around some common themes.

Khattar, Upadhyay, & Navarro (2023) found there are five major themes that define breadcrumbing:

  1. Charm: Breadcrumbers are often charming and charismatic, which can make it difficult for the breadcrumbie to see through their intentions.
  2. Leading on: Breadcrumbers may give the breadcrumbie false hope by making promises or expressing interest in a relationship, even though they have no intention of following through.
  3. Incongruence: Breadcrumbers’ actions and words often don’t match up. For example, they may say they want a relationship, but then their actions show that they’re not interested in anything serious.
  4. Avoiding emotional investment: Breadcrumbers often avoid getting emotionally invested in the breadcrumbie. This can be done by keeping the relationship casual or by withdrawing from the breadcrumbie when they start to get too close.
  5. Commitment uncertainty: Breadcrumbers are often unsure about whether or not they want a relationship. This can lead to them sending mixed signals and making the breadcrumbie feel confused and insecure.
what is breadcrumbing in dating relationships

The Tricky Signs of Breadcrumbing

These are the signs to help you recognize breadcrumbing in a relationship:

Common Signs

  1. Inconsistent Communication: One common sign of breadcrumbing is inconsistent communication. The breadcrumber may engage in sporadic contact, keeping the other person on their toes.
  2. Lack of Commitment to Plans: Breadcrumbers often show a lack of commitment to making plans or taking the relationship to the next level. They may avoid making concrete arrangements or commitments.
  3. Evasiveness About Feelings or Intentions: Breadcrumbers tend to be evasive when it comes to expressing their true feelings or intentions. They keep the other person guessing about where the relationship is headed.
  4. Maintaining Superficial Contact: Typically, breadcrumbers maintain some level of contact through messaging apps like WhatsApp, sending random DMs or texts, or occasionally liking social media posts. However, they refrain from taking any substantial steps to advance the relationship.

Mixed Signals

  1. Presence of Mixed Signals: One of the main indicators of breadcrumbing is the presence of mixed signals within the budding relationship.
  2. Inconsistent Texting Patterns: Breadcrumbing often involves inconsistent texting patterns. The breadcrumber may alternate between being highly responsive and then suddenly distant.
  3. Hot-and-Cold Behavior: Individuals engaged in breadcrumbing can display hot-and-cold behavior, showing affection and interest on some occasions while becoming distant and unresponsive to others.
  4. Vague, Non-Committal Attitude: Breadcrumbers typically maintain a vague, non-committal attitude towards the relationship. They avoid making clear commitments or defining the nature of the connection.
  5. Possible Reasons for Inconsistent Behavior: The inconsistent behavior associated with breadcrumbing may be attributed to factors such as insecurity, lack of emotional intelligence, immaturity, or disrespect. This inconsistency can leave the other person feeling confused and uncertain about the future of the relationship.

Social Media Signals

  1. Significant Role of Social Media: In the digital age, social media interactions often play a significant role in dating and relationships, providing platforms for communication and connection.
  2. Breadcrumbing on Social Media: Breadcrumbing may be more noticeable in the realm of social media. The person engaged in breadcrumbing may use inconsistent online behavior to maintain a connection without demonstrating genuine commitment.
  3. Inconsistent Online Engagement: This can involve sporadic actions like liking or commenting on their target’s posts without progressing the relationship. Brief and unsatisfying text conversations can also be part of breadcrumbing on social media.
  4. Creating Jealousy or Competition: In some cases, the breadcrumber might use social media to evoke jealousy or competition by flirting with or posting about other potential love interests, adding to the confusion and uncertainty experienced by the recipient.
  5. Impact on Uncertainty: These inconsistent social media interactions can contribute to the overall uncertainty and confusion felt by the person on the receiving end of breadcrumbing, as they struggle to interpret the mixed signals presented through digital platforms.
breadcrumbing in dating is manipulative behavior
Breadcrumbing is manipulative behavior.

The Disturbing Effects of Breadcrumbing In Dating

Breadcrumbing in dating can be a deeply distressing experience, leading to various negative effects.

Psychological Impact of Breadcrumbing

  1. Confusion and Anxiety: Breadcrumbing often causes confusion and anxiety as the recipient tries to interpret the mixed signals.
  2. Feeling “Stuck” in Life: Those subjected to breadcrumbing can feel “stuck” in life, unable to move forward due to the uncertainty of the relationship.
  3. Loneliness and Helplessness: Breadcrumbing leads to extended periods of loneliness and helplessness, with individuals left in a state of uncertainty.
  4. Fear of Forming Relationships: The fear of forming new relationships can develop as a result of breadcrumbing, making it challenging to trust others.
  5. Feeling Rejected: Breadcrumbing can also result in feelings of rejection, as the recipient often senses they are not a priority.
  6. Impact on Well-Being: Breadcrumbing significantly impacts overall well-being and life satisfaction, causing emotional distress.
  7. Post-Breakup Breadcrumbing: Unfortunately, some breadcrumbers continue their tactics even after a breakup, attempting to maintain relevance and attractiveness to their former partners.

Mental Health Outcomes

  1. Poor Mental Health Outcomes: Victims of breadcrumbing are known to report poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety (Williams, 2009).

Impact on Self-Esteem

  1. Psychological Repercussions: Breadcrumbing, particularly through ostracism, can have severe psychological repercussions, affecting one’s mental well-being and self-esteem.
  2. Confusion and Insecurity: The inconsistent and sporadic nature of attention from the breadcrumber often leaves the person feeling confused and insecure, questioning their self-worth.
  3. Boosting Confidence Temporarily: Each breadcrumb of affection or attention may temporarily boost confidence, but the lack of consistency and genuine commitment can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in the long run.

Impact on Relationships

  1. Harm to Potential Relationships: Breadcrumbing’s lack of sincere intentions creates a false sense of connection, hindering the pursuit of more genuine relationships with others.
  2. Development of Trust Issues: Deceitful behavior can lead to trust issues, affecting future relationships and interactions.

Long-term Emotional Impact

  1. Feelings of Disappointment and Heartbreak: Emotionally, breadcrumbing can evoke feelings of disappointment and heartbreak.
  2. False Hope: The breadcrumber’s actions give false hope, causing individuals to invest time and energy into something with limited potential for a meaningful relationship.
  3. Emotional Turmoil: The constant cycle of engagement and disengagement can leave individuals emotionally exhausted, leading to a cycle of hope and despair.
  4. Worsening of Stress and Anxiety: This emotional turmoil can worsen stress, anxiety, and overall mental well-being.

How To Deal With Breadcrumbing

Breadcrumbing can have various motives, such as ego satisfaction, fear of ending something, or loneliness. Regardless of the motive, breadcrumbing is unacceptable behavior. Here are effective ways to deal with it:

1. Set Clear Boundaries

  • Prioritize Your Relationship Status: Clarify your relationship goals. If you’re comfortable with friendship, breadcrumbing may be acceptable. However, for those seeking a committed relationship, it’s essential to communicate your desires.
  • Establish Clear Boundaries: Define what behaviors are acceptable (and what are not) in your relationship. Setting boundaries means outlining your expectations and what actions you will take if those boundaries are not respected.
  • Enforce Boundaries: Be consistent in enforcing your boundaries. If someone continues breadcrumbing despite your clear communication, inform them that you’ll block them on social media and messaging apps if they persist with misleading behavior.
  • Tip: Pay attention to their actions, not just words, as behavior often reveals true intentions more accurately.

2. Confront The Issue With Courage

  • Address the Behavior Directly: When breadcrumbing occurs, address it directly. Name the behavior for what it is and express your disapproval.
  • Seek Clarity: If breadcrumbing persists, have a courageous conversation. Approach it confidently, express your feelings, and request clarity about the other person’s intentions. Remain open-minded to understand their perspective.
  • Gain Perspective: Discuss your experiences with trusted friends, family, or survivors. Their insights can provide clarity and support in confronting the situation effectively.

3. Cut Off All Communication

  • Assess Impact on Mental Health: If breadcrumbing continues despite your efforts, evaluate its impact on your mental health. Consider whether it’s time to disconnect.
  • Prioritize Emotional Well-Being: Protect your emotional well-being by deciding when it’s necessary to let go. Cutting off all communication is often the best recourse to regain your self-esteem and rebuild your emotional health.

How To Move Forward After Breadcrumbing

Experiencing breadcrumbing in a dating relationship can be emotionally challenging. Here’s how to move forward positively:

1. Leave Emotional Baggage Behind

  • Avoid Carrying Baggage: Don’t let the emotional baggage from breadcrumbing affect your future relationships. Recognize that the past does not define your worth or potential.

2. Build a Positive Mindset

  • Believe in Yourself: Assure yourself that you deserve and are capable of healthier future relationships. Building a positive mindset is key to moving forward.
  • Be Open to New Relationships: Despite any apprehensions, open yourself up to positive, committed relationships.

3. Look for Signs of Genuine Interest

  • Evaluate Potential Partners: When considering new partners, look for signs of genuine interest. This can be especially important in online dating.

4. Communicate Expectations and Desires

  • Express Your Needs: Start by expressing your expectations and desires clearly. Establish ground rules to ensure mutual awareness of each other’s needs.
  • Prioritize Honest Communication: Building a healthy relationship starts with honest communication and emotional investment.
  • Take Time Before Sharing Personal Stories: Avoid rushing into planning dates or sharing personal stories too quickly.

5. Discuss Commitment Levels

  • Define Commitment: Discuss your desired commitment levels to prevent potential misunderstandings and breadcrumbing incidents.

6. Emphasize Respect and Independence

  • Communicate Clearly: Express your needs and emotions clearly to your partner. Make it clear that respect in the relationship is non-negotiable.
  • Prioritize Independence: Maintain your independence and self-esteem. Avoid placing your happiness solely on the success of the relationship.

7. Build Trust Gradually

  • Establish Trust: Understand that trust is built over time through consistent actions, patience, understanding, and keeping promises.

8. Recognize Breadcrumbing as a Reflection

  • Understand Breadcrumbing: Acknowledge that breadcrumbing reflects the breadcrumber’s insecurities rather than a flaw in you. This realization can help you move forward with confidence.

9. Take Your Time with Intimacy

  • Prioritize Security: Ensure you feel secure before initiating intimacy in a new relationship.

10. Avoid Overcommitment and Codependency

  • Avoid Overcommitment: Don’t rush into over-committing or over-delivering in an attempt to unload emotional burdens.
  • Maintain Independence: Avoid becoming codependent on your partner and remember that your happiness should not solely depend on the success of the relationship.

Respect is more important than a relationship. Do not put up with bad behavior from a romantic interest. Just leave with dignity when you’re not getting respect.

Breadcrumbing vs Other Dating Behaviors

Understanding the differences between breadcrumbing and other dating behaviors can help you set boundaries and protect yourself from unhealthy relationships.

Breadcrumbing vs Ghosting

While both breadcrumbing and ghosting involve a lack of commitment in a relationship, they manifest differently.

Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick, a relationship expert, says breadcrumbing is “a technique used in toxic relationships, in which you are given just enough time, attention, or affection to keep you hooked … but not enough to actually meet your needs.”

Ghosting is “breaking off a relationship by ceasing all communication and contact with the former partner without any apparent warning or justification, as well as ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out or communicate.”

Ghosting leaves the victim without closure in the relationship.

Breadcrumbing is not as clear a breakup strategy as ghosting because the initiator does not wish to let his or her partner go. It is this way of keeping a date on “hold” that can make it more harmful than ghosting.

BreadcrumbingGhosting
Breadcrumbing is a technique used in toxic relationships. It involves giving just enough time, attention, or affection to keep the other person hooked, but not enough to meet their needs.Ghosting is abruptly ending a relationship by completely cutting off communication with no warning or justification. It also involves ignoring any attempts by the former partner to reconnect.
Breadcrumbing is not a clear breakup strategy, as the initiator doesn’t want to let go of their partner. It involves keeping the relationship on “hold,” which can be more harmful than ghosting.Ghosting leaves the victim without closure, as there’s no communication or explanation for the sudden end of the relationship.
Breadcrumbing can lead to emotional confusion and frustration for the person on the receiving end.While ghosting may not significantly impact psychological well-being, it leaves individuals with unanswered questions and emotions.

Surprisingly, this study found that ghosting victims often have no significant changes in psychological correlates for life-satisfaction, loneliness, or helplessness.

Breadcrumbing vs Gaslighting

Breadcrumbing and gaslighting are similar in that they both involve manipulation, but their intentions are different.

As I said earlier, breadcrumbing refers to stringing someone along without fully committing.

Gaslighting, however, is a deliberate attempt to distort someone’s concept of reality, causing them to question their own judgment and perceptions.

BreadcrumbingGaslighting
Breadcrumbing involves offering intermittent and inconsistent signs of interest, leaving someone with the impression that there’s potential for a deeper connection.Gaslighting is a deliberate manipulation tactic where one person actively works to make another question their own perception of reality.
It leads individuals to doubt whether the person showing interest genuinely cares about them.The objective of gaslighting is to convince someone that their thoughts and feelings are incorrect, eroding their confidence and ability to make clear judgments.

Breadcrumbing vs Flirting

Flirting can be a fun and playful way of expressing interest in someone without the negative implications of breadcrumbing.

Flirting involves playful banter, compliments, and occasional teasing, with the potential to develop into a more meaningful connection.

In contrast, breadcrumbing is insincere, purposefully vague, and aimed at keeping the other person interested without any intention of moving the relationship forward.

However, both may involve a slight invasion of personal space.

BreadcrumbingFlirting
Breadcrumbing is insincere and deliberately vague, aimed at keeping the other person interested without intending to advance the relationship.Flirting is a fun and playful way to express interest without negative implications. It involves banter, compliments, and occasional teasing.
Breadcrumbing often leaves the other person feeling uncertain about the future of the relationship.Flirting has the potential to develop into a more meaningful connection, as it creates a light-hearted atmosphere for interaction.
Breadcrumbing may involve maintaining a distance emotionally, even while giving false hope.Flirting, when genuine, can lead to a closer emotional connection between individuals.
Breadcrumbing is typically self-serving and lacks consideration for the other person’s feelings.Flirting, when done with respect and reciprocity, can enhance mutual attraction and understanding.

Breadcrumbing vs Micro-Cheating

Breadcrumbing and micro-cheating both involve keeping someone interested, but they occur in different contexts.

Breadcrumbing happens in the early stages of dating when one person strings along the other without fully committing.

Micro-cheating, however, occurs in committed relationships and involves small, subtle actions that push the boundaries of what is acceptable within the relationship. These actions do not necessarily involve physical infidelity, but they can still damage trust and intimacy.

BreadcrumbingMicro-Cheating
Breadcrumbing occurs in the early stages of dating when one person keeps the other interested without committing fully.Micro-cheating takes place in committed relationships and involves subtle actions that test the boundaries of what’s acceptable within the relationship.
Breadcrumbing often leaves the person on the receiving end feeling uncertain about the future of the relationship.Micro-cheating includes behaviors that might not involve physical infidelity but can still erode trust and intimacy in the relationship.
Breadcrumbing is typically observed in the early stages of dating and is often less emotionally invested.Micro-cheating occurs in committed relationships where emotional investment is higher, making it potentially more damaging.
Understanding the differences in dating behaviors like breadcrumbing can help individuals recognize manipulative or unfair treatment early in a relationship.Recognizing micro-cheating behaviors empowers individuals to set clear boundaries and protect themselves from harm in established relationships.

Commitment vs Breadcrumbing

This table highlights the fundamental differences between commitment, which is essential for a healthy romantic relationship, and breadcrumbing, a behavior that undermines genuine commitment.

BreadcrumbingCommitment
Breadcrumbing is a manipulative behavior in dating, where someone gives minimal attention to keep the other person interested without genuine commitment.Commitment is the essence of an exclusive romantic relationship, involving partners’ emotional investment, engagement, and identification with each other and the relationship.
Breadcrumbing does not involve genuine commitment, as it primarily focuses on keeping the other person engaged without emotional attachment or love.Stanley’s theory of commitment identifies two overarching types: dedication (emotional attachment and love) and constraint (external factors like social pressure).
Breadcrumbing often occurs in the early stages of a relationship when genuine commitment is not established.Commitment is typically sought and developed as the relationship progresses, deepening over time.
Breadcrumbing allows one person to maintain the upper hand without investing genuine time, effort, or emotional commitment.Commitment involves partners investing time, effort, and emotions into building a strong, lasting connection.
Breadcrumbing’s motive is to string someone along for personal gain without the intention of forming a committed relationship.The motive behind commitment is to create a meaningful and enduring bond with a partner.
Breadcrumbing can harm the other person emotionally, leading to confusion, insecurity, and mistrust in relationships.Commitment positively impacts the relationship, fostering trust, intimacy, and a sense of security.

FAQs

  1. How does breadcrumbing manifest in friendships?

    Breadcrumbing in friendships is when one person intermittently gives attention or support to keep the friendship alive without truly investing. This often means infrequent communication, unfulfilled promises, and minimal effort to maintain a close bond.

    In these situations, the person breadcrumbing usually wants validation and attention without offering the same in return. This can leave the friend feeling undervalued and frustrated due to the lack of a genuine connection and commitment in the friendship.

  2. What are the warning signs of breadcrumbing?

    Some warning signs of breadcrumbing are sporadic communication, hesitancy to make plans, and avoiding discussing or clarifying the relationship’s nature. There are also inconsistencies in expressions of love or interest.

    Key red flags for identifying breadcrumbing include:

    1. Frequent unkept promises.
    2. Mixed signals in their behavior.
    3. Consistent unavailability and busyness.
    4. Selective interest, mainly when it suits them.
    5. An avoidance of discussing future plans or commitments.

  3. Can breadcrumbing occur in non-romantic situations, such as work or marriage?

    Yes, breadcrumbing in a relationship can also occur in non-romantic situations, including work and marriage. This makes it hard to know how the relationship is going.
    In marriage, breadcrumbing can involve one partner withholding emotional or physical intimacy while providing occasional affectionate gestures to maintain the relationship.
    In a professional setting, breadcrumbing might manifest as a coworker or superior providing “minimal” support, cooperation, encouragement, or recognition, leaving you feeling undervalued and uncertain about your job performance.

Personal experience: I had an examiner in my final year of med school who would breadcrumb students in viva exams. If the student started answering in a slightly wrong way, he would lead them into making glaring mistakes from which they couldn’t back out.

Final Words

Breadcrumbing in relationships is a toxic behavior, ever since it was defined in 2014 as giving someone enough attention to maintain their hope of a relationship.

They offer just enough to keep you interested, only to feel “high” with your attention and validation.

These “come hither” gestures can make you feel validated temporarily but ultimately lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and trust issues.

Spotting it early prevents long-term harms like difficulty having healthy relationships. If you’re struggling to cope with breadcrumbing post-breakup, consider consulting a psychologist.


Reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher.

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