Do You Know What’s Breadcrumbing in Dating Relationships?

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” originates from “breadcrumbs,” which means “small pieces of dried bread.” Breadcrumbing in relationships refers to leaving breadcrumbs of nice gestures so that someone can follow the trail.

What is breadcrumbing in a relationship? Let’s deep dive to find out.

What is Breadcrumbing in Dating Relationships?

Breadcrumbing in dating involves sending flirtatious but non-committal signals or “breadcrumbs” to lure a romantic partner without investing much effort.

This could include occasional messages, brief phone calls, social media interactions, sporadic dating plans, and even provocative pictures or videos.

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

What is Breadcrumbing in relationships

Breadcrumbing is dropping small pieces (“crumbs”) of information to lead someone into a trap. It can happen in both budding romantic relationships and established ones.

The term was coined by Grazzz, 2014, who explained it as “when a guy gives someone just enough attention to keep their hope of a relationship alive.”

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 people engaging in breadcrumbing to boost their self-esteem or because of their narcissistic tendencies.
  • 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
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 compared to the person they are leading on. However, they act around some common themes.

Khattar, Upadhyay, & Navarro (2023) found that 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.

Psychologically, breadcrumbing is motivated by various factors. Those who engage in this behavior might feel better about themselves due to the attention they receive from multiple people and have a constant need for reassurance.

Some breadcrumbers have narcissistic personalities, which makes them prone to manipulative behaviors without feeling guilty. Additionally, certain individuals may already be in another relationship but still seek validation from others, further complicating the situation.

If one detects breadcrumbing in their relationship, it’s vital to set boundaries and address the behavior.

For the victim, self-care and building self-esteem can be invaluable steps towards finding healthier relationships. By defining what they deserve in a partner and not tolerating poor treatment, one is better equipped to find a more suitable match for a fulfilling romantic connection.

what is breadcrumbing in dating relationships

The Tricky Signs of Breadcrumbing

Breadcrumbing can be one of the worst experiences in dating.

It can even happen after a relationship breakup – the breadcrumber trying to maintain the “date” on “hold” and remain relevant and attractive to the victim.

These are some ways to know you’re being breadcrumbed:

Common Signs

Some common signs of breadcrumbing are inconsistent communication, lack of commitment to plans, and evasiveness about their feelings or intentions.

Typically, the breadcrumber will try to keep some level of contact without actually progressing the relationship forward.

Breadcrumbers do not stop talking on messaging apps like WhatsApp, sending random DMs or texts, or giving an occasional like on social media, to not discard the other person at all. But they won’t take any steps to take the relationship forward.

Mixed Signals

One of the main indicators of breadcrumbing is the presence of mixed signals in the budding relationship.

These mixed signals can come in various forms, including inconsistent texting patterns, hot-and-cold behavior, and a vague, non-committal attitude.

The person may display interest and affection at times, only to become distant and unresponsive the next day.

This inconsistent behavior can be linked to various factors, such as insecurity, lack of emotional intelligence, immaturity, or disrespect, and may leave the other person confused and uncertain about the relationship’s future.

Inconsistent Social Media Interactions

In the age of technology, social media interactions often play a significant role in dating and relationships.

Breadcrumbing may be more visible in this domain, as the person may engage in inconsistent online behavior as a way of maintaining the connection without showing genuine commitment.

This can include liking or commenting on their target’s posts sporadically or engaging in brief, unsatisfying text conversations.

In some cases, the person might also use social media to create a sense of jealousy or competition by flirting with or posting about other potential love interests.

These inconsistent social media interactions can further contribute to the uncertainty and confusion experienced by the person on the receiving end of breadcrumbing.

breadcrumbing in dating is manipulative behavior
Breadcrumbing is manipulative behavior.

The Disturbing Effects of Breadcrumbing

  • Breadcrumbing leads to feelings of loneliness, extended periods of uncertainty, helplessness, and low levels of well-being and satisfaction with life.
  • Many victims are known to report poor mental health outcomes, such as depression and anxiety (Williams, 2009).
  • Being a survivor of repeated breadcrumbing can lead to isolation and mistrust of others.
  • Some can get triggered into addictive behaviors like alcoholism.

On Self-Esteem

Breadcrumbing, via ostracism, can have serious psychological repercussions, impacting one’s mental well-being and self-esteem.

The inconsistent and sporadic nature of the attention from the breadcrumber can leave the person feeling confused and insecure, questioning their self-worth.

Each breadcrumb of affection or attention might temporarily boost their confidence, but the lack of consistency and genuine commitment can lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in the long run.

On Relationships

Apart from affecting self-esteem, breadcrumbing can harm potential relationships as well.

The breadcrumber’s lack of sincere intentions creates a false sense of connection for the person on the receiving end, preventing them from pursuing or investing in more genuine relationships with others.

Also, the recipient of breadcrumbing can develop trust issues because of the deceitful behavior, which can affect their future relationships and interactions.

On Emotions

Emotionally, breadcrumbing can evoke feelings of disappointment and heartbreak.

The breadcrumber’s actions give the misled person false hope, investing time and energy into something that does not have the potential to develop into a meaningful relationship.

The constant roller coaster of engagement and disengagement can leave them feeling emotionally exhausted, leading to a cycle of hope and despair.

This emotional turmoil can further worsen the stress, anxiety, and mental well-being of the person who experiences breadcrumbing.

How To Deal With Breadcrumbing

People may breadcrumb for various reasons, such as ego satisfaction, inability to end something, or loneliness.

However, regardless of the motive, breadcrumbing is not acceptable behavior.

Here are ways to deal with it:

Set Clear Boundaries

First, set your priorities straight about the status of your relationship:

  • If you are ready to be in their friend zone, then breadcrumbing may be acceptable.
  • But if you want a committed relationship, then you have to tell them what you want.

Then, set clear boundaries. Boundaries are about what behaviors you will allow and what you won’t.

Setting boundaries is about what you will do if they don’t follow your rules.

So, if you’re looking for a serious relationship, communicate your expectations and needs to them in clear terms, and be consistent with enforcing those boundaries.

Tell them you will block them on social media and messaging apps if don’t stop their “leading on” acts.

Tip: Pay attention to the other person’s actions rather than just their words, as their behavior can reveal their true intentions more accurately.

Confront Them With Courage

Address the issue directly when it occurs. Call out the behavior for what it is and condemn it.

If breadcrumbing continues despite your efforts in setting and enforcing boundaries, it might be time to confront the situation.

Approach the conversation with a confident and knowledgeable tone, expressing your feelings and asking for clarity about the other person’s intentions.

Remain neutral and open-minded, and focus on understanding their perspective. This approach may help reveal their motives and lead to a healthier discussion about the status of your relationship.

Tip: Discuss your experiences with trusted friends, family, or a survivor. You would gain more clarity of your situation and find better arguments to confront them with.

Cut Off All Communication

In some cases, breadcrumbing may persist even after trying to set boundaries and confronting the person directly. At this point, it is crucial to consider cutting off communication to protect your emotional well-being.

Assess the impact of the breadcrumbing on your mental health and determine if it’s time to let go and move forward.

Disconnecting from the person involved in breadcrumbing can be challenging but is often necessary to preserve your self-esteem and emotional health.

How To Move Forward After Breadcrumbing

Don’t carry the emotional baggage to other relationships after being breadcrumbed in a dating relationship.

  • Assure yourself you are deserving and capable of healthier future relationships.
  • The key lies in building a positive mindset and taking proactive steps to have a happy life.
  • Open yourself up for new positive, committed relationships, even if you are feeling a little apprehensive.

Look for signs of genuine interest from a potential partner you found on an online dating platform.

  • Start by expressing your expectations and desires, and lay down ground rules for being aware of each other’s needs.
  • Building a healthy relationship starts with honest communication and emotional investment.
  • But make sure you don’t rush into planning dates or sharing personal stories.

Talk about your desired commitment levels, as this can help avoid potential misunderstandings and another incident of breadcrumbing.

  • Communicate your needs and emotions clearly to the person.
  • Emphasize that respect in the relationship is non-negotiable, and maintaining your independence and self-esteem is crucial to you.
  • Establish trust before sharing your vulnerabilities. Trust is built over time, through consistent actions, patience, understanding, and follow-through on promises made.

Acknowledge that breadcrumbing is a reflection of the breadcrumber’s own insecurities, rather than a flaw in you, the victim.

  • Make sure you feel secure before initiating intimacy.
  • Don’t be impulsive to unload the emotional burden. Stop yourself from trying to over-commit and over-deliver.
  • Do not let yourself become codependent on them. Avoid placing your happiness on the success of your relationship.

Do not put up with bad behavior from a romantic interest. Just leave with dignity.

Respect is more important than a relationship.

Commitment & Breadcrumbing

Commitment is the essence of what it means to be in an exclusive romantic relationship, driving how much partners invest, engage, and identify with one another and the relationship.

Stanley’s theory of commitment suggests two overarching types of commitment, i.e., dedication and constraint.

However, commitment can be a difficult thing to achieve, especially in the early stages of a relationship. This is where breadcrumbing comes in.

By giving just enough attention to keep the other person interested, the breadcrumber can get what they want without having to invest any real commitment.

Breadcrumbing vs Other Dating Behaviors

Breadcrumbing is a manipulation tactic often employed to string someone along while keeping options open or exerting control over another person’s emotions and actions.

Those who engage in breadcrumbing may do so for various reasons, including an unexpressed fear of commitment, a narcissistic personality, or someone who avoids confrontation.

Breadcrumbing may also arise from attachment issues, which can lead to insecurity, co-dependence, or avoidant behavior in relationships.

Moreover, repressed memories of past trauma can also make a person more likely to treat others with breadcrumbing, as they struggle with trust issues or emotional vulnerability.

Breadcrumbing vs Ghosting

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

Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick, relationship expert, says that 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 much 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.

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 the victim to question their judgment and perceptions. Unlike breadcrumbing, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse.

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.

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.

By understanding the differences between these dating behaviors, individuals can better recognize when they are being manipulated or treated unfairly in romantic situations. This knowledge can empower them to set boundaries and protect themselves from unhealthy relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How can you recognize breadcrumbing in a relationship?

Breadcrumbing in a relationship refers to a person giving you just enough attention or affection to keep you hopeful and hooked, but not enough to make a meaningful commitment.

This behavior can lead to confusion and disappointment for those on the receiving end. Identifying breadcrumbing typically involves inconsistent communication, vague plans, and mixed signals.

The person breadcrumbing may send sporadic messages and compliments, leaving you wondering where you stand in the relationship.

2. What are some psychological aspects behind breadcrumbing?

The psychological aspects of breadcrumbing may stem from a fear of commitment, a desire for control, or a need for validation.

People who engage in breadcrumbing might be avoiding intimacy or grappling with feelings of insecurity. They may also crave the attention and admiration that comes from multiple romantic interests.

This behavior can be harmful to both parties, creating a cycle of emotional unrest and dissatisfaction.

3. How does breadcrumbing manifest in friendships?

Breadcrumbing can also occur in friendships, where one person gives just enough attention or support to maintain the connection but fails to invest genuinely in the relationship.

This might include sporadic communication, empty promises, or a lack of effort to maintain a close friendship.

In these situations, the person breadcrumbing may seek validation and attention without offering emotional availability or commitment in return.

4. What are some effective ways to handle breadcrumbing?

Handling breadcrumbing involves recognizing the behavior, setting clear boundaries, and prioritizing self-care.

Start with communicating your needs and expectations while maintaining a sense of self-worth. If they continue to breadcrumb you, consider if you need to distance yourself or end the relationship.

Some effective coping strategies for dealing with breadcrumbing:

  • Set healthy boundaries.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away.
  • Focus on your own self-care.
  • Talk to a therapist or counselor.
  • Surround yourself with supportive people.

Seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional can also be helpful in coping with the effects of breadcrumbing.

5. What are the warning signs of breadcrumbing?

The warning signs of breadcrumbing may include infrequent communication, minimal effort in making plans, and an unwillingness to discuss or define the relationship. Other signs may be inconsistent expressions of affection or interest, leaving you feeling unsure about the relationship’s future.

Some red flags that can help people to identify breadcrumbing:

  • The person is always busy and unavailable.
  • They only seem interested in you when it’s convenient for them.
  • They make promises they don’t keep.
  • They give you mixed signals.
  • They avoid talking about the future.

Do trust your instincts first and evaluate the situation honestly if you suspect you’re being breadcrumbed.

6. 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.

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.

I had an examiner in my final year of med school who would purposefully breadcrumb students into making glaring mistakes they couldn’t back out from.

Final Words

So basically, breadcrumbing is a toxic relationship behavior.

The breadcrumber gives you just enough attention or clues to keep you hooked, but they have no genuine interest in you, and will never fully commit to take the relationship forward.

They toss out bits of “come hither” gestures to keep you hopeful and optimistic, only to feel “high” with your attention and validation.

It can negatively impact a breadcrumbie’s mental health and well-being, causing anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting others. Ultimately, you need to be aware of this manipulative behavior to prevent its long-term effects.

See a psychologist if you can’t handle your ex-date’s breadcrumbing after a breakup. They can help you forge healthy, fulfilling relationships after being abandoned.

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

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