Breadcrumbing is a term for stringing someone along with small nuggets of communication—but never fully committing to a relationship. Today those crumbs of communication tend to occur online. The person may respond to an Instagram story, like a Facebook photo, or text a funny meme. They may text back and forth periodically but never seem to agree to plans in person. The connection stalls, unable to evolve into a fulfilling relationship.
This ambiguity can feel confusing and hurtful to those on the receiving end. Maintaining hope that the relationship will progress, a breadcrumbee may struggle to realize what’s happening or end the relationship.
Breadcrumbing typically refers to romantic relationships, but it can occur in other personal and professional relationships as well.
Breadcrumbing is a colloquial term that describes a pattern of behavior; it comes from the famous fairy tale in which Hansel and Gretel leave a trail of breadcrumbs in order to find their way home. Breadcrumbing is not an official psychological term or diagnosis.
The Signs of Breadcrumbing
Breadcrumbing can be a confusing experience; learning to spot the signals can help people name the behavior and process it. The signs include:
Behaviors you can observe from the breadcrumber:
- Inconsistent and erratic communication
- Speaking via text or social media but not committing to spend time together in person
- Not following through on plans that are made
- Surface-level communication that lacks depth, vulnerability, or details about the person’s life
- An imbalanced relationship—they don’t reciprocate your level of interest
- Focusing on the physical side of the relationship rather than focusing on all sides of the relationship
Feelings you can observe in yourself
- Feeling confused and uncertain about the state of the relationship
- Feeling a roller coaster of emotion, such as sad, then hopeful, then disappointment once again
- Feeling self-doubt, such as questioning if you did something wrong
- Feeling anxious or dependent on the breadcrumber for the next point of contact
- Feeling used or manipulated
- Feeling badly about yourself after interacting with them
- Feeling lonely or hopeless about the relationship
Does breadcrumbing only apply to romantic relationships?
Breadcrumbing generally refers to dating, but the behavior can also occur in familial relationships (infrequent and conditional love), friendships (connecting then breadcrumbing), and professional situations (dangling illusive opportunities).
At what stage of a relationship does breadcrumbing occur?
Breadcrumbing can happen at any stage of a relationship. For example, someone who has been on one or two dates with you may begin breadcrumbing instead of expressing concrete interest in the relationship by asking you on a third date. Another person may begin reaching out with crumbs of communication after a breakup if they want to get back in contact with their ex.
What’s the difference between ghosting and breadcrumbing?
Ghosting and breadcrumbing are both forms of noncommittal behavior, but ghosting is when someone disappears entirely with no explanation, and breadcrumbing involves inconsistent communication that functions to string the person along.
Other terms that involve non-committal behaviors include orbiting—staying in someone’s orbit online but not spending time together in-person—and submarining—disappearing and then resurfacing after a long period of time.
How can I tell if a relationship has run its course?
Self-reflection and honest communication can help people understand if a relationship has run its course. Ask questions such as “Do I believe this is the right person for me?” and “What are the pros and cons of the relationship?” This can help people identify how to discuss these challenges with a partner or end the relationship and move forward.
The Emotional Consequences of Breadcrumbing
Breadcrumbing involves a sporadic, shallow pattern of communication. These occasional moments of connection keep the person hopeful that a relationship may yet be possible. This often prevents the breadcrumbee from ending the relationship, even though they may be struggling with confusion, frustration, or disappointment.
Research suggests that people who have been breadcrumbed tend to feel more lonely, more helpless, and less satisfied with life. The prolonged nature of the process makes it particularly difficult, perhaps more so than ghosting. The person is stuck on standby, leading to feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and invalidation.
There are many reasons why breadcrumbing is hurtful: First, social rejection is painful; research has found similarities between social rejection and physical pain in the brain. Second, confusion and lack of closure can trigger self-doubt. Third, breadcrumbing can lead to isolation and loneliness, because it discourages people from dating or seeking new connections. Fourth, it can instill a sense of loss, such as the loss of trust or hope.
The realization that one was led-on poses its own challenges; the person may feel like they were betrayed or manipulated, which can evoke embarrassment, self-doubt, or withdrawal.
Has breadcrumbing become more common over time?
Technology and social media have made it easier for people to drop in with occasional contact, such as through likes or DMs; communicating in small, occasional doses is easier now. The world of online dating also presents unlimited options, which contributes to the tendency to designate some potential mates as backups to keep exploring one’s options.
Additionally, research on ghosting has found that people who were ghosted were more likely to ghost someone else. This finding suggests that the more these behaviors occur, the more they are normalized.
Is breadcrumbing intentional?
The breadcrumber may or may not realize what they’re doing and the effect they’re having. For example, they may not realize that the person is interested in pursuing a relationship, or they may be overwhelmed and not able to commit to a relationship at the moment.
Others may be more manipulative and recognize that stringing someone along allows them to benefit from the relationship when they want to without investing further. Since the person may or may not know how their behavior is coming across, you may want to consider asking them about it directly.
Why do some people avoid ending a breadcrumbing relationship?
Breadcrumbing involves an asymmetrical relationship in which one partner is more invested than the other. The less committed person may avoid confronting the other person—even if they recognize this—because they may not feel ready to say goodbye, and pushing for clarity may spark a conflict that ends the relationship.
How to Cope with Being Breadcrumbed
It’s natural to feel hurt by breadcrumbing. Once you realize that the other person’s behavior is consistently non-committal, you can take steps to manage your emotions and recover from the experience.
1. Acknowledge and name what happened. You can share the experience with a friend or journal about it.
There’s no obligation to do so, but if you think confronting the breadcrumber would provide closure, you can share your feelings directly. For example, “It feels like you’ve been stringing me along, and that hurts.”
2. Learn about breadcrumbing and forms of non-committal behaviors so you understand the cultural context. This will also help you spot it sooner if it happens again.
3. Uphold your integrity by refraining from similar behaviors yourself.
4. Prioritize your mental health. Continue to practice self-care, seek support, and reach out to a professional if you’re having trouble.
How can people cope with someone’s inability to commit?
It can sometimes feel like society today struggles with commitment—when dating, in friendships, or at work. One way to handle flakiness is by acknowledging that it has affected you—rather than thinking that you “shouldn’t take it personally” or you should “just get over it.” Honor your moral integrity and the integrity of the reliable, committed people who surround you. Reflecting on your integrity and vowing to uphold it can help you recover your power after being treated disrespectfully.