What Is Breadcrumbing?

With the advent of new frontiers in modern dating, like the ubiquity of social media, our behavior and the language for it has expanded and adapted. This is helpful, but also means we may feel like we’re playing an endless game of catch-up trying to understand our own experiences. You may have heard the term “breadcrumbing” when people talk about love or dating — but had no context in which to place it. What does breadcrumbing mean, and could it apply to you? Here’s what you need to know.

What is breadcrumbing?

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The key metaphor in “breadcrumbing” is the idea of tiny scraps of sustenance rather than something satisfying and fulfilling, like a full meal. It also conjures the idea of following a trail — think of Hansel and Gretel in the forest. 

Taken together, we see the idea of someone “breadcrumbing” in a dating context: offering presence, attention, communication, or affection only sporadically, without making a real commitment or being truly available. It may also mean that someone is consistently promising future connection or intimacy, then moving it again as the future becomes the present. This could look like: 

  • Someone who doesn’t respond to texts for weeks, and then suddenly wants to see you that evening with no notice
  • A date who keeps mentioning they want to take you on trips or for a weekend getaway, but only ever invites you to their apartment after 10 pm
  • Someone who frequently sends chatty texts, photos or memes, but becomes unresponsive or vague if you try to make plans in person

Some psychologists think that breadcrumbing works via the mechanic of “intermittent reinforcement” — the same psychological precept that can make gambling addictive, or manipulate pigeons in a lab to perform to earn food. While you might think that inconsistency should be a turnoff — and you’re right! — our brains can be incredibly motivated by a slim chance of a potential reward, even one we know is unlikely. Depending on our attachment style, some people may even be more attracted to inconsistent or “breadcrumbing” partners than they are to someone reliable and enthusiastic.

Why is someone breadcrumbing me??

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If we feel like we’re being breadcrumbed — or are even experiencing the broader circumstance of someone saying one thing and not following through — we might very reasonably be wondering “is this intentionally manipulative, or are they just thoughtless?”

This is a tough question to answer in any relationship dynamic when someone’s behavior is hurtful to us — and it often feels incredibly important to know the answer. Whether it’s someone cheating, lying or just being callous, it’s normal to wonder whether this person is trying to hurt you or if the treatment you’re receiving is the unintentional collateral damage of their trying to get some other need met.

While it’s very reasonable to want to understand this, in the end, it may not be constructive to get caught up in. The real question is, how is this behavior impacting you, and are you willing to continue putting up with it? Someone might very well have the best intentions in the world and be totally horrified to learn that they’ve been causing you distress — but if they can’t or won’t adjust that behavior and continue causing you distress, it doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is whether you’re able to feel stable with this person and form a secure attachment without feeling like you need to earn someone’s affection or be content with scraps.

Am I accidentally breadcrumbing someone else?

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If you know you aren’t always able to be as consistent or have as much follow-through as you’d like — perhaps you have something of an avoidant attachment style — you may read this and feel defensive, worried, or implicated. 

Have you been “breadcrumbing” someone? It’s certainly possible they feel that way — like many pop psych terms, like “gaslighting” or “lovebombing,” the common usage of the term has expanded past its original meaning. It’s entirely possible that someone could feel they’re being led on, deceived or manipulated if you’ve not been able to show up consistently or respond in the way you’d want. On the other hand, we can never fully control other people’s impressions of us, or what they choose to take away from our interactions with them.

What we can control is our own actions. If you’re worried about either breadcrumbing someone or being perceived as such, the best thing to do is to recommit to showing up with intention. It’s easy to end up leaving someone feeling strung along if you don’t know what you want. Make sure you’re clear on what you’re looking for and communicate it upfront and consistently.

What should I do about breadcrumbing?

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If you think you’re being breadcrumbed — or simply feel that what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing in terms of actions aren’t adding up — you have a few options. 

It’s entirely possible to keep giving this person a shot. Communication works wonders — if you haven’t told this person that your needs for communication and connection aren’t being met, it may be worth having a direct conversation about it and giving them a chance to change course. Expressing a need or setting a boundary early on can help clarify whether this person will be able to be the kind of partner you’re looking for; their response will tell you a lot.

It’s also very fair to decide you want to end the dynamic. Whether what you’re seeing is intentional “breadcrumbing” or just a disorganized and careless person, you deserve to experience stability and security. 

At the end of the day, the best path forward is to check in with your red flags and green flags — what are your most important priorities in a relationship? What are the needs that are non-negotiable? And what risks are you not willing to take?

Recommended Books:

Toxic Relationship Recovery: Your Guide to Identifying Toxic Partners, Leaving Unhealthy Dynamics, and Healing Emotional Wounds After a Breakup by Jaime Mahler

The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing with Toxic People: How to Reclaim Your Power from Narcissists and Other Manipulators by Shahida Arabi

Becoming Toxic Person Proof by Sarah K Ramsey

For More Articles Check Out These Recent Posts:

What is Gaslighting?

What is Lovebombing?

Attachment Styles: Understanding How You and Your Date Relate to Each Other

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