What is Breadcrumbing?

Is breadcrumbing harmful?
on September 11, 2023
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Modern dating isn’t easy. With an array of new dating behaviors, it’s important to know the lingo in order to sidestep any landmines. 

So, what is breadcrumbing? Despite their late-night texts or vague promises, if you have a love interest who is confined to your social media likes — you could be getting led on by your very own breadcrumber. 

Often defined as an elaborate version of Hansel and Gretel, it’s best to get to the bottom of why people breadcrumb in order to sweep away the crumbs for good. 

What is breadcrumbing in a relationship? 

Breadcrumbing involves sending out various non-commital signals to lure in a potential partner, keeping them waiting in the wings while they have no intention to follow through with their plans. Even though they aren’t even considering a committed relationship, they like the validation these non-committal signals provide. 

According to research, modern dating has resulted in the gamification of relationships, with an alarming rise in these damaging behaviors as adults navigate this increasingly treacherous dating landscape. 

For example, these breadcrumbers may dip in and out of your DM’s with flirty messages to keep your attention, or they may pop up in your social media posts like count just in case you forget they were around. 

Studies show that these behaviors are most commonly associated with online dating apps, more short-term relationships, or online surveillance of people you may have met online. 

In fact, these tactics have become so common that many people view them as a normal part of online dating, rather than a potential sign of an avoidant attachment style. 

Even though modern dating has brought the awareness of breadcrumbing to the forefront of our minds, it’s still hard to spot when someone is leaving a personalized trail of breadcrumbs just for you. While it may all seem like part of the chase, this dating behavior isn’t very fulfilling — for the stomach or the heart. 

What is an example of breadcrumbing? 

Breadcrumbing behaviors come in many different forms, whether sprinkled amongst your DM’s or lurking in your likes. If they react with a fire emoji every time you post a bikini picture but don’t continue the conversation, or say you should meet up but never make plans — you likely have a breadcrumber in your midst. 

"I have had clients agonizing on the therapy couch over someone they see viewing their stories, offering little comments but never fully making plans or fully going away,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

“That feeling of them being just close enough to stay interesting but also not close enough to really enjoy can be exhausting."

These examples are particularly relevant if they’re reoccurring, as breadcrumbers tend to amp up their pursuit once they feel you start to lose interest in their games. Then once you pick up the trail again, and as you sit eagerly awaiting the next crumb — they leave you with nothing. 

This is likely a sign of their own innate narcissism, they have to be sure that you want them before they return to their non-committal agenda. This kind of behavior can be very taxing on your mental health and self-esteem, as this cycle can leave you feeling hurt and led on by someone who has no good intentions. 

Is breadcrumbing narcissistic?

Breadcrumbing is a form of leading someone on, and while it’s usually exhibited by individuals with narcissistic traits, not everyone who breadcrumbs is a narcissist. 

This quest of validation can be undertaken by anyone in the dating world, and in many cases, it’s not done with any real bad intent. For example, it could be due to a fear of commitment, uncertainty, or simply to avoid confrontation. 

However, it’s best to recognize the red flags or warning signs of emotional abuse hidden behind the crumbs before it’s too late. 

Breadcrumbing vs. gaslighting 

While both gaslighting and breadcrumbing can be classed as manipulative behaviors, they are both very different things in terms of intent and emotional impact. 

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person sows seeds of doubt in their loved one to make them question their own sanity. While this tactic is usually done from a place of control, breadcrumbing is more about validation and attention — keeping someone forever ‘on the hook’ without offering them a genuine connection or relationship. 

While both behaviors can be harmful, gaslighting is a more serious manipulation tactic with a greater psychological impact. 

Breadcrumbing vs. poor communication

Before you brand your latest Hinge match as a breadcrumbing narcissist, it’s important to consider the less detrimental options. 

For example, some people are unfamiliar with the ways of online dating, and may not realize the certain etiquette rules that are involved. Even if they don’t realize they’re doing it, a lack of clear communication can waste both your time and your emotional energy. 

If you think your romantic interest may just be behind on their correspondence, it’s best to raise the issue of communication early on and set boundaries to ensure you’re both equally invested in a prospective romantic relationship. 

"It's good to stay curious about why something is happening, rather than jumping to labeling a behavior,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Shyness can be misinterpreted as breadcrumbing as well. So, being bold and clear about your interest can help give people a green light that doing more than just liking a post is welcomed.”

8 signs of breadcrumbing in your relationship 

1. Inconsistent communication: If your prospective romantic partner is leaving you on delivered on a regular basis, only to suddenly reappear without explanation, this inconsistent communication pattern can be very draining. Even though the breadcrumbs may seem inviting at first, it’s best not to fall for these sporadic text messages when they show such minimal effort.

2. Vague promises: Whether you love it or hate it, from date nights to mortgage payments, healthy relationships are all about planning. Breadcrumbers love vague promises, and even though they always hint at future plans they can never quite commit to a date or time. 

3. Commitment issues: In many cases, when you finally get the opportunity to call out your breadcrumber in question, they usually cite commitment issues as a reason for the vague nature of the relationship. While commitment isn’t for everyone, it isn’t a valid excuse to mess you around. 

4. Last-minute plans: Instead of booking in date night, breadcrumbers prefer a booty call or a hook-up to an actual hang out. While you can waste your time reading into the meaning behind their messages, it’s best to just see it as it is — you’re not a priority

5. Hot and cold: One day they seem to be planning your future together, while the next you can’t even get a hold of them on the phone. While love-bombing isn’t preferential, the constant back and forth can certainly leave you feeling like you’re going to explode. 

6. Lack of intimacy: While physical intimacy may be fiery, emotional connection is stalled by surface-level conversation. Whether over text or in person, breadcrumbers tend to stay away from deep conversations so as to stay non-committal. 

7. Excuses: As much as they’re a fan of hook-ups and heart reactions, excuses are their real elixir of life. If your love interest has an excuse for everything, it can make you feel like you’re overreacting to their breadcrumbing behaviors — damaging your emotional and mental wellness in the process. 

8. Constant uneasiness: If you’re dealing with a breadcrumber, no matter how much you’re trying to ignore it, your intuition might be signaling that something isn’t right. Before the breadcrumb trail runs out, it’s best to pay attention to the kind of commitment you’re really craving — and when to call it quits when the crumbs just aren’t enough. 

What is the end goal of breadcrumbing?

Breadcrumbing perpetrators commit this dating crime for many reasons, with some reasons more sinister than others. 

Usually, if someone is consistently popping in and out of your notifications, they’re probably lonely and checking to see if you’re still interested in order to get the validation and attention they need. This reasoning usually goes hand in hand with keeping their options open, so they can get this kind of attention from as many sources as they need. 

While for some breadcrumbing is all about the ego boost, other people plant breadcrumb trails rather than dealing with larger issues. For example, they might be afraid of commitment and want to break it off, but want to avoid the potential confrontation that actual communication might turn into. 

In some cases, in the beginning stages of a relationship, they may not want to breadcrumb but are uncertain about how to proceed. Being nervous about jumping into a serious commitment is a normal feeling, but it’s important to tackle these feelings in a more productive way. 

How to deal with breadcrumbing in a relationship

If you believe you’re being breadcrumbed in a relationship or during the dating process, it’s crucial to prioritize your emotional well-being and avoid a toxic relationship. 

A key part of emotional manipulation is that it makes you doubt yourself. However, it’s important to recognize and validate your feelings when your partner’s inconsistent behavior bothers you. 

Try and have a candid conversation with the person about how their actions are making you feel. If they were engaging in breadcrumbing tactics without realizing it, hopefully, they would make positive changes. 

If they don’t make these changes, it’s best to break up in order to preserve your own wellness. Take some time to focus on self-care in order to help mitigate the emotional toll of breadcrumbing, and ensure you set boundaries to safeguard you in the future. 

"Sometimes the simplest thing is the hardest thing to do: hit that unfollow button,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“We often feel like this is a huge message, but in reality, it's your social media. If interacting with someone is causing you to stress and confusion, and you have tried to address it directly with no avail, it might be time to clean up your timeline a bit." 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between breadcrumbing and ghosting?

    While ghosting and breadcrumbing are both about avoidance, ghosters completely disappear from your life, while breadcrumbers never stop making appearances (even if they never really commit). In essence, breadcrumbing involves giving just enough attention to keep them hanging on while ghosting is all about the disappearing act.
  • How is breadcrumbing related to infidelity?

    In some cases, breadcrumbing can overlap with actions of infidelity, usually when these tactics are used to draw in someone outside the relationship. For example, this could be a way for someone to keep their options open, with these flirty interactions with a third party classed as digital infidelity.
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