Red Flags of Breadcrumbing in a Relationship
They only text you late at night, for example.
Posted May 11, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Breadcrumbing means stringing someone along by giving them only the smallest bits of attention.
- Breadcrumbers use certain predictable methods and techniques, such as regularly canceling plans or only sending intimate late-night texts.
- Breadcrumbers may behave this way for a variety of reasons, from circumstantial relationship problems to personality pathology.
You’ve heard all about ghosting and gaslighting; perhaps, if you’re dating, you’ve even had these unpleasant experiences yourself. But what about “breadcrumbing?”
Well, imagine this: You’re interested in someone you’ve met online, and you find yourself communicating exclusively through texts and social media. They keep writing to you, dropping “small nuggets of communication” (according to Psychology Today) but never actually making concrete plans to get together. You hope they’re still interested, and whenever you receive a text or a late-night message you begin to believe it again. Still, they never follow through. So you keep hoping and you keep texting, feeling your interest peak whenever they write back.
This—keeping someone’s interest alive by feeding them the smallest possible bits of attention—is breadcrumbing.
How to recognize breadcrumbing
If it sounds like regular-old online dating to you, it might help to gain some perspective. Kelly Campbell, a professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, says breadcrumbers constantly leave you wondering where you stand. Their interest in you is inconsistent: One day they’re warm and enthusiastic, the next day they take hours to write back to you.
"They have a game playing style of relating which involves maintaining the interest of numerous people at once," Campbell says. "Their self-esteem is dependent on the number and status of people they are able to romantically entertain." Thus, the more people and the higher their status, the more the breadcrumber’s self-esteem is boosted. Alternately, their responses can be so superficial or ambiguous that you’re never sure what they really mean. They might leave you hanging for weeks, but then send you a long, more intimate message without explaining the gap in communication.
People who breadcrumb may be unusually difficult to pin down for a real date. They might tell you quite often that they’d love to see you and encourage you in a vague way, but ignore or play down your attempts to put a plan on the calendar. Or perhaps they will get your hopes up by talking incessantly about an upcoming date, but when the day and time finally arrive, they’ll suddenly cancel on you.
Often, if you challenge or confront these people about their breadcrumbing ways, they may change temporarily. Briefly, they’ll show you much more interest and begin keeping in contact more regularly—or even follow through on plans to get together. This can create the impression that the relationship between you is finally developing for real.
Dana McNeil, a psychologist in private practice and a relationship coach in San Diego, suggests that breadcrumbers may even increase their openness and vulnerability in an effort to draw you back into their orbit, or to make you more receptive to a booty call. But once you’ve forgiven them, they will likely step back again and become less available. Sometimes, McNeil reports, they'll pin the problems on you, by saying they'd be willing to spend more time with you once you "get your act together"—a breadcrumbing technique that can make you feel twice as bad.
Less typical signs of breadcrumbing
There are other, more particular signs of breadcrumbing, although these may be less typical. For instance, perhaps the person you’re interested in only ever texts you late at night. This could be a way of striking when the iron is hot, that is, when you are at your loneliest and most vulnerable. “Good morning” texts, with nothing to follow, show a similar lack of effort. During the day, though, breadcrumbers will be much harder to get hold of—likely because they are in more frequent contact with other people.
Breadcrumbers may also seem to spend a lot of time checking out or “liking” your social media posts, even as they fail to respond to any more substantial texts you may have sent them directly. Alternately, they’ll communicate without words, using GIFs, memes, or emojis. Maybe they will also refer to you using a generic nickname, which could refer to almost anyone—as if they’ve forgotten your name. Again, these signs indicate that this person is only willing to make the minimum investment in you.
Why do breadcrumbers do it?
Even if this has never happened to you, you’re probably wondering by now why someone would behave like this. Obviously, the goal is to sustain your romantic interest, despite their lack of any intent to build a relationship. This suggests that by leading you on, a breadcrumber may be seeking narcissistic validation. In other words, their self-esteem may be unstable and premised on external signs of appreciation or interest from others; by breadcrumbing you, they sporadically gratify their own need for constant reassurance.
Of course, it’s also possible that the breadcrumber has a complicated romantic life of their own; perhaps they’re already in a relationship, or maybe they aren’t sure how much they like you. If they're already involved in a committed relationship, they could be using dating apps as a source of validation, a way to puff up their own ego. This is known as "micro-cheating;" it usually leads to promises made without any follow-through.
And last but not least, your breadcrumber might just be a person who isn’t great at developing mutual, intimate relationships. Some breadcrumbers don’t really know how their actions affect the people with whom they interact. There’s a chance that someone could be doing this to you without intending to hurt you at all.
How to stop a breadcrumber
No matter why this is happening to you, there are certain steps you can take to end the breadcrumbing and preserve your sense of self. First, and most importantly, you’ll need to be direct with the person breadcrumbing you. Let the breadcrumber know that you understand their behavior as an attempt to lead you on. Try to do this with sensitivity, however, because a direct and honest conversation can still lead to greater intimacy if the breadcrumber is able to explain their actions.
You may also want to talk openly about your goals for the relationship. There’s nothing wrong with being uncertain about your interest in another person, or about what you want from relationships in general; if you’re able to articulate this directly, you may be able to cut through a lot of mixed signals.
Of course, the breadcrumber may not be playing fair with you after all. If you’ve been led on too many times—if too many dates have been suggested, only to evaporate just before they’re scheduled to occur—you’ll want to cut through the ambiguity as concisely as possible. Take the initiative and suggest a specific plan: an opportunity to meet each other on a clearly stated date and time. If you’re not vague, and the breadcrumber actually does want to get together, you stand a better chance of breaking through any miscommunication. But if they weasel out of it again despite your clarity, you’ll know for sure that their intentions are not genuine. If this is the case, you’ll need to prioritize your own needs once again.
"You set the example for how others should treat you, so don't tolerate poor treatment," Campbell explains. "People learn how to treat you based on how you treat yourself. If you value and respect yourself, they will do the same. And if they don’t, you won’t care for their affection." She also adds, "You are attracted to people who treat you in accordance with how you view yourself."
If you’re not being treated fairly—if you find that you are putting your own needs on the back burner to make a relationship work, or to keep a connection going in some attenuated form—you should step back and ask yourself if it’s really worth all the effort. If subtler gestures should fail, you may want to state the bottom line, outright, and tell the other person that you’re not up for a casual relationship. They may not have the same goals in mind; if that’s true, you’ll need to know it. But your needs are valid, and they deserve respect. When it comes right down to it, the best way to honor your own needs might be to disconnect from a person who ignores them and move on.
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Psychology today (n.d.). Breadcrumbing. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/breadcrumbing.
McNeil, D. (2022, March 1). Breadcrumbing – 5 Signals to Watch Out For and How to Deal With It. Retrieved from https://danamcneil.com/breadcrumbing-5-signals-to-watch-out-four-and-ho…
Raypole, C. (2021, February 11). Feel Like You’re Being Led On? It Might Be ‘Breadcrumbing.’ Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/relationships/breadcrumbing