POV: You made plans with your crush to meet up Saturday night and they cancel last-minute without making promises to reschedule. This is the third time (er, consecutively) they’ve flaked, and while they still respond to your texts and give you butterflies whenever they comment something flirty on your Instagram posts, they just keep dodging plans to meet up IRL. So, what gives? Odds are, if you can relate, you might be experiencing breadcrumbing.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, “breadcrumbing is when one person continues to stay in contact with someone, but provides nothing committal or substantial to move the relationship forward,” explains Jennifer Klesman, LCSW, a Chicago-based therapist and author of You Can’t Stay There: Surviving a Breakup. These contact points often come in the form of flirtatious texts or social media interactions that arrive in short, inconsistent bursts, abruptly starting and stopping without explanation, Klesman explains.
Meet the Experts:
Jennifer Klesman, LCSW, a Chicago-based therapist and author of You Can’t Stay There: Surviving a Breakup.
Shan Boodram a Kentucky-based certified sexologist for Bumble and intimacy educator.
Nona Kelly, LMFT, a Tennessee-based relationship and family therapist for Thriveworks.
The breadcrumber gives you just enough attention that you hold on to glimmers of hope that the relationship has potential, but you’re always left without concrete answers or true commitments. In short, breadcrumbing is “ultimately just leading someone on,” Klesman says.
If you feel like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods of dating trends, you likely don’t know where to turn. Luckily, relationship experts are here to guide you on how to detect the signs of breadcrumbing and what to do if it happens to you.
What is breadcrumbing?
Breadcrumbing is a modern dating tactic that’s become more common with the rise of technology, social media, and app-centric romance becoming integral to the dating sphere.
“Breadcrumbing is when someone shows you just enough attention to keep you interested in a potential relationship or opportunity, even if they don’t intend to become fully involved or committed,” explains Shan Boodram, a Kentucky-based certified sexologist for the dating app Bumble and intimacy educator. Ultimately, it’s giving someone enough “crumbs” of attention (get it?) to keep them interested, “but it’s not enough to make them feel fully secure or comfortable within the relationship,” says Boodram.
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And yes, technically breadcrumbing can occur both on and offline—it’s just easier to do so on social media given how you connect on these platforms, says Boodram. Even after weeks or months of not talking, you can feel like someone is closer to you than they actually are through subtle forms of indirect contact, such as liking posts, viewing and reacting to stories, and answering the occasional direct message.
In more serious cases, breadcrumbing can also be a manipulation tactic employed by emotional abusers who exert their power over others to receive something in return—whether it’s sexual access, sexual exclusivity, gifts, attention, emotional support, or an ego boost, Boodram explains.
After getting what they want, they neglect your physical and emotional needs, which may result in you suppressing them to keep the relationship from ending (even if it’s starting to cause you distress), Boodram adds.
What are some signs you’re getting breadcrumbed?
You probably don’t want your dating prospects to be toast, thanks to another toxic tactic, so keep these red flags in mind, advises Klesman.
- They reach out only for hookups. If you’re technically dating someone—not strictly on a casual basis—and they only reach out to you when they’re looking to be sexual, then it could be breadcrumbing. They want to fill their physical needs without thinking about how it impacts your emotions or personal desires for the relationship.
- They cancel regularly. If you talk throughout the week and make plans for the weekend, but when Friday rolls around, they always have an excuse to cancel, this could be a sign of breadcrumbing. They’re keeping you interested over text, but not giving you any solid commitments to move the relationship forward IRL.
- They take forever to reply. Maybe you’ve gone on in-person dates with them, but once you’re home, you barely hear from them. It’s possible that they might even take days or months to reply to your texts, only leaving you the breadcrumb of that last IRL meet-up to hold on to.
- Your conversations are shallow. If you only ever have surface-level conversations and they avoid getting deep, you might be in a breadcrumbing situation. They’re trying to keep you entertained in the present so you don’t leave, but they never talk to you about the future or verbalize long-term intentions.
- They only flirt on social media. If they never call you or express any desire to see you in-person, but are more than happy to shower you with praise or cheeky messages on social media, there could be a breadcrumber in your midst. They’re giving you those little hints of validation that you need to feel good without any actual follow through. Those heart eyes emoji reactions to your stories may give you a confidence boost in that moment, but when it’s followed by silence afterwards, you may just end up feeling confused and icky.
Why do people breadcrumb others?
Understanding what constitutes bad dating behavior is easy, but what drives people to do it? That can be tricky. Ahead, experts explain some reasons why a potential love interest might lead you on rather than make their intentions clear:
- They hate confrontation. “For some, it may be easier to breadcrumb rather than face confrontation and end things with the other person completely,” says Boodram, especially if they’re not really feeling the relationship but don’t want to disappoint you. Either way, it’s a selfish move.
- They’re doing it unintentionally.“For others, dating simply may not be a priority,” says Boodram. “Some may not even realize they’re leading the other person on.” Maybe they’re just casual about dating in general right now, and they’re under the impression that you’re on the same page—even when you’re not.
- They’re narcissistic. In the worst case scenario, breadcrumbing can be a sign of narcissistic behavior, Klesman says. “It makes someone feel good to have another person on call and willing to provide attention or affection whenever they randomly feel like reaching out to them,” she explains. Basically, you’re there to serve the breadcrumber’s need for validation, and your feelings are left completely uncared for, which hurts.
What should I do if I’m being breadcrumbed?
If, like Hansel and Gretel, you realize this trail of breadcrumbs isn’t leading you to where you want to go, take these steps to find your own version of happily ever after:
- Ask yourself what role you played. This isn’t to say that it’s your *fault* you were breadcrumbed, it’s just important to think about how you might have contributed to the situation so you can avoid going through this again, says Nona Kelly, LMFT, a Tennessee-based relationship and family therapist for Thriveworks. Did you ignore any red flags? Did you push down your gut feeling that something wasn’t right? Why did you want to believe this was the real deal? There’s nothing wrong with wanting your crush to reciprocate your interest, Kelly notes, but it’s important to unpack why you’re pining after someone who’s simply not willing to put in the effort. You deserve better, trust.
- Put pen to paper. Time to break out your journal. Jot down both the role you played and the ways that this person breadcrumbed you. Writing brings about personal awareness and helps you see the “proof” of a situation that you might have previously felt was ambiguous and surreal given its online-heavy nature, explains Kelly. You won’t feel as confused when it’s right there in black and white.
- Set and communicate your boundaries. Most importantly, you need to assess your boundaries and take back your power in this relationship (er, situationship), Kelly says. Think about how you’d like to be treated when dating or in a romantic partnership—then, communicate those sentiments to the breadcrumber. You can say something along the lines of: “I really like you, but you don’t seem to be willing to put in the same effort to get to know me as I am, so I don’t think it’s fair for me to continue pursuing this.”
- Consider cutting ties. Moving forward, if they don’t respect the boundaries that you’ve made clear and aren’t willing to make an active effort to get to know you IRL, it’s time to do what’s best for you and wave goodbye. Why waste your energy on someone who’s just not that into you when your fairytale romance could be a corner—or swipe—away?
Thank you, next!
Madeline Howard is a writer, editor, and creative based in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Esquire, Nylon, Cosmopolitan, and other publications. Among other things, she was formerly an editor at Women’s Health. Subscribe to her newsletter ‘hey howie’ at madelinehoward.substack.com.