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The whats, whys, and hows of breadcrumbing

Dating lingo continues to adapt and the dating dictionary just keeps getting longer and longer. The fact that the internet is a central backdrop in today’s dating scene only adds to the vocab we now have to learn while dating in the 21st century.

While it may be frustrating to learn that there are so many ways to trigger your trust issues, it doesn’t hurt to be able to put a name on harmful behavior which can help you pinpoint your experiences and feelings. It also doesn’t hurt that this allows you to avoid these certain types of behavior in the future.

So, now presenting yet another term for your dating dictionary, you may have heard of gaslighting, ghosting, maybe even love bombing—but have you heard of: breadcrumbing?

California State University, San Bernardino associate professor of psychology and human development, Kelly Campbell, Ph.D. defines breadcrumbing as “leading someone on romantically using online or electronic forums […] to keep someone’s interest in you, even if you never intend to become romantically involved with them.”

It’s when someone leads you on with an inconsistent taste of the bare minimum amount of effort. This usually occurs over multiple social media platforms and/or through text. The real kicker about breadcrumbing is that this person is giving you just enough romantic interactions to keep you interested but they have no intention of pursuing the relationship any further than this.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The entire experience may be encapsulated by queen NIKI’s painful song lyric from “Lose” that goes “Fickle as you are, that’s exactly why I keep on runnin’ back”.

Basically, they give you some attention and then disappear for a while so that you’re left wanting more. But when they start to fade from your mind, suddenly, they pop back into your life again ready to give you more of the same amount of minimal effort, and the terrible cycle starts all over again.

Why would someone be such a tease when they have no intention of putting their money where their mouth is? Well, apparently there are a handful of reasons. Though it may be important to note that with the definition of breadcrumbing, it is possible that it’s being done unintentionally. Maybe the person you’re speaking to doesn’t have the best communication skills. Each situation is different, but again, there are many reasons that could lead someone to breadcrumb another, whether they realize that they are doing it or not. Here are just a few of the numerous reasons why someone might breadcrumb.

(Not) In the Mood for Love

It is possible that the person feels a true attraction to you. Maybe they really do like talking to you, but it just so happens that they aren’t emotionally ready to commit to anything further than just casual talking. Other than just fearing commitment, it is also possible that they aren’t sure about things in general. Right now, they might not even know what they want. They may be unsure about you or about wanting to be in a relationship at all.

Maybe they aren’t even really looking for a relationship right now, it isn’t high up on their priority list. But while it isn’t a major priority, it is possible that they still talk to people and flirt to avoid being lonely.

Breadcrumbing may provide a band-aid solution to loneliness with brief and shallow interactions. Occasionally coming to you for some light flirting may give them a sense of respite from the loneliness, putting their minds off it for a while which leads to them no longer feeling the need to stay in touch with you once they get their fix. But when they feel it creeping up again—you might expect to see a notif pop up from them on your screen.

Breadcrumbing also allows them to conserve as much energy and effort as possible. So, while they are giving you the bare minimum – maybe even less – while they are unsure of their feelings towards you and being in a relationship with you, the effort starts to fall mostly on your plate. You expend more of your time and energy on them with a lack of reciprocation from them.

While this hanging out in the talking stage isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, it may be a bit frustrating if it continues (inconsistently) while you are looking to commit to a long-term relationship.

This becomes harmful when they do not voice out these thoughts so you can both begin the journey of moving on. Instead, they continue to keep the connection alive just enough that they can continue talking to you without your knowing that this may be as far as things are going to get.

Gas me up

The longer they’re able to sustain your interest in them, the more it feeds their ego. They enjoy the constant validation that they get from you when they come to you. They may not even know they’re doing this; it may have become a habit to go to you whenever they are feeling unsure about themselves.

We all like to be given attention sometimes, and it’s great to hear praise said out loud by other people, but when we do it at the expense of others, that’s when it becomes problematic. Breadcrumbers don’t necessarily reciprocate all the love that they receive and possibly see the other person like a free shop they can visit when they run out of their supply of self-esteem, without giving anything in return.

I’mma leave the door open

Alexa, play “Leave the Door Open” by Silk Sonic. But in all seriousness, one reason why someone would breadcrumb is that they are already in a relationship and/or are talking to other people but are still looking for some more attention.

If they are already in a relationship with someone else, it may be that they are feeling neglected by their partner. Maybe their partner is really busy or maybe they are in a long-distance relationship. The bottom line is that that person may be making up for the lack of attention from their partner with the attention that they are getting from you. Or maybe they can sense that their current relationship might not last and decided to start moving on a tad bit early.

If they aren’t already in a committed relationship, then maybe this person is dating several people at the same time to keep their choices open. They may like you but maybe they like someone more, but they aren’t going to stop talking to you until they go steady with the other person, because at least you’ll still be there if things go wrong with the other person, right? The situation could also be flipped. What if you eventually turn them down, at least there is someone else to help them cushion the blow. When one door closes, another one opens am I right?

They may have taken the phrase “collect and select” a little too seriously. Now, there is nothing wrong with talking to a lot of people at the same time to see who you really vibe with the most if you are upfront about this, but if they deliberately keep this a secret from you then… that’s just trouble waiting to happen.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Now that you know what breadcrumbing is and you may already be growing wary of it, let’s see it in action. Here are 5 telltale signs that could point to breadcrumbing.

See you “soon”

They don’t make much of an effort to see you in real life. But instead of making this blatantly obvious, they keep you on the hook by offering up vague statements about the future, usually dropping the dreaded “soon” aka – “let’s see each other soon”/ “let’s hang out soon”/ “let’s go there together soon!” They repeatedly hint at making plans but have zero follow through, making no effort to actually see you.

When you try to narrow down a specific date, they might retort with excuses as to why they can’t make it. Or if you are able to set down a date, they may cancel last minute with another excuse at the ready. When they throw out their excuses, they usually wrap it up all sweet and flirty to try and soften the blow or distract you from the plans.

Gives the same energy as the mysterious “see you later” problem from the classic Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging 2008 film. As Jazz said, “When is ‘later’ then?”

Hot then you’re cold, you’re yes then you’re no

When encountering a breadcrumber, you may find yourself always questioning what is really going on between the two of you. Maybe you guys are talking nonstop for one week but then suddenly they go MIA for days on end. It seems like they come and go as they please, popping up inconsistently. And sometimes they don’t really give a clear explanation of what happened.

The interesting tactic that a breadcrumber might use is by establishing their presence in your life across multiple social media platforms. During one of their long bouts of silence, they might drop a like or react to one of your stories but still ignore your direct messages to them.

After getting anxious as to why they still haven’t replied and you’re on the verge of giving up, suddenly there they are again! You may feel relieved that they’re back and you’re hoping that things will start going well again, then poof… they’re gone…again. But then they message you, and you’re back to where you started.

At an arm’s length away

As much as you might talk (when you do talk), the majority of your conversations may be about very surface-level things. Your conversations are mostly filled with superficial or generic topics. It may seem difficult to engage in deeper topics with this person. Sometimes they might open up a little, for a sense of a deeper connection between you two, but then they aren’t as keen to let you in as you might be.

Since breadcrumbers never really had any intention of getting into a long-term relationship with you, it is possible that they would not put too much energy into getting to know you on a deeper level. There is a distance between the two of you that you might try to fill with shallow banter and flirting. Maybe you’re trying to close the gap between the two of you, but they aren’t making much of an effort to meet you in the middle.

At the end of the day, you might realize that you don’t really know anything about this person, and they don’t really know you either.

You up?

While it’s difficult to finalize plans with someone who breadcrumbs, they may suggest some plans and actually follow through: booty calls. When they do initiate (and execute) a plan, it’s usually already late at night, at the last minute, and things may quickly get physical.

After these meetups, they might leave you hanging for a while, though they might break their radio silence again to ask for one more of these “spontaneous” hangouts.

You don’t feel like your best self

Because of the nature of breadcrumbing, you might think to yourself that it’s a you problem. Why do they suddenly pull away? Was it something that you did? The hot and cold nature of breadcrumbing makes you doubt your actions and feel insecure about yourself.

So now you know the what, why, and how of breadcrumbing, but wait, there’s more! The how of how to deal with breadcrumbing once you’ve recognized it in your relationships.

First of all, congratulations on being honest with yourself. It is no easy task to remove your rose-tinted glasses and recognize things for what they actually are—it’s even more difficult to take concrete steps to deal with this after acknowledging the presence of breadcrumbing. More power to you!

Photo by Pratik Gupta on Unsplash

As mentioned earlier, breadcrumbing may be done unintentionally, but whether a person is doing so with their awareness or not, it is still something that can hurt. So, here are five ways you may want to deal with someone who is breadcrumbing you.

Set the date

While breadcrumbers are elusive creatures to catch IRL, suggesting specific dates of when to meet may reveal whether they are actually breadcrumbing you. Setting the date gives you more of a chance to meet up, maybe they really were busy at a certain time. This will let you know if they really had any intention of wanting to meet you.

If they still dodge the plans, making excuses for why they aren’t available on the dates you suggest (and maybe not even suggesting alternative dates for you to meet) then maybe they aren’t looking to meet up after all.

Maybe they’ll agree to your plan but then cancel last minute. Now is the time to tell them how their flaking makes you feel. Let them know that it isn’t okay, especially if this has repeatedly happened in the past with excuses that don’t really sound all that convincing.

Limits and boundaries

Try mixing things around. Play with the dynamics of your interactions. Do they always text you at night? Then try responding to them in the morning instead. Don’t let them take full control of every conversation/interaction that you have.

Try and push past the breadcrumbs being dropped in front of you and see how they will respond to this. Will they adjust to the changes or cut you off completely?

Communication is key

Point out what they are doing and how it is making you feel. If they are unaware of what they are doing, then this will open their eyes to their actions and how it’s affecting you. Opening up the conversation also gives them space to share more personal things (ex. Family or work concerns) that might be stopping them from more constant communication with you.

You may also use this opportunity to speak about your own expectations for your relationship. Not everyone has the same expectations and goals when entering relationships, and that’s okay, what’s important is that these thoughts are established as soon as possible so as not to waste each other’s time and prevent anyone from getting hurt.

Brb, self-care

Make sure to know what you want and to fight for it if you need to. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. You should set the standard of how you want to be treated in a relationship, don’t settle for anything less. Set your boundaries and know when to stick up for yourself if a line is crossed.

Try your best not to take things too personally. You might look for where you went wrong and what you could have done every time that they pulled away. Remember that breadcrumbing is usually done for a person’s own self-satisfaction, without realizing (or realizing and just plainly not caring) about the harm that it might do unto others. This doesn’t mean that they are breadcrumbing you because you deserve to be breadcrumbed. There is nothing wrong with you, none of this is “your fault”.

Remember what you want and what you deserve. Don’t allow yourself to shrink or give up some of your goals because of someone who is treating you poorly. Really take the time to sit and think about your current situation and if it is what you want in your life right now. If yes, then great! Make sure to adjust your expectations for the relationship and set clear boundaries between the two of you.

But if the answer is no, then…

So long, farewell

If this experience continues to negatively affect you, it may be time that you said goodbye. Once you do make the decision to close things off, make sure to clearly tell them why. See your choice through so as to allow yourself to make room for relationships that you do deserve in your life.

Cash this relationship into experience. Now you know yourself a little better and what you expect from your relationships. In the future, you’ll better be able to recognize any red flags/signs of breadcrumbing and know how to deal with these.

Breadcrumbing can feel very complicated, unsatisfactory, and frustrating. And with all this, it may even feel like a waste of your time if it turns out that you both aren’t looking for the same thing after all.

It can be a painful cycle of excitement and hope for a bright future that is suddenly taken away from you and then rebooted again with another spaced-out interaction—now you might be excited and hopeful that maybe things will be different this time around, but unfortunately, the cycle continues. This may make you feel even lonelier than before you were talking to this person because now you might find yourself constantly waiting around for their next message. Trying to keep yourself as free as possible in case they decide to reach out.

It may be much more difficult and painful when the person you’re talking to (when you are talking to them) seems ideal in every way that you ignore signs that may suggest otherwise. But no matter how much you try to collect and combine all the crumbs you receive, it will never feel like enough.

Healthy relationships shouldn’t make you feel lonely or insecure. Of course, they won’t always be easy, but you shouldn’t constantly be second guessing whether you’re good enough, because you are. You deserve much more than just a few measly crumbs.


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