What Is Breadcrumbing? How to Spot This Red Flag in Relationships
If you're worried a person—either a friend or a potential romantic partner—is stringing you along by breadcrumbing you, here's how to tell and what you can do about it.
Just enough attention to pique your interest
The early days of a new relationship can be nerve-wracking as you work through each other’s communication style. And sometimes, this can happen: You begin to think things are going well, only to have the other person start to send you mixed signals, blow hot and cold, or ignore you sporadically.
This distressing phenomenon—just enough attention to keep you interested, but with no real intention of commitment—has a name, says Danielle Laura, relationship counselor and author of Dear Love, I’m Ready for You. It’s called breadcrumbing. (Here are the characteristics of a healthy relationship.)
What is breadcrumbing?
Unlike ghosting—which involves suddenly cutting off all contact with the person you’re dating—breadcrumbing might alternate periods of silence with cute messages, check-ins, or active flirting, explains Bethany Cook, clinical psychologist, board-certified music therapist, and author of What it’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting.
“Breadcrumbing is sending mixed messages to someone with the intent of leading them on,” says Cook. “This person sends a few texts or comments on a couple of social media posts—all in an effort to keep that individual hooked,” but with no intention of actually starting a relationship.
Since online dating and dating apps became popular, breadcrumbing has been on the rise, says Rachel Eva Dew, a board-certified doctor of natural medicine, integrative life transformation coach, and cofounder of the integrative telemedicine platform Modi Health.
“These apps provide a perfect opportunity to shift traditional dating and the pursuit of a sexual partner or a relationship in significant ways,” says Dew. “One of these is through playing a numbers game.”
That’s when the breadcrumber puts out feelers—drops crumbs—to see who bites, says Dew. “This numbers game requires very little energy, effort, commitment, or relational skills.” (Here are therapists’ tips for dealing with dating rejection.)
We spoke with experts about breadcrumbing, including why people do it, and how to deal with it.
Nicolas Fuentes / 500px/Getty Images
Why do people breadcrumb?
Dating and the early stages of a relationship are a natural time for breadcrumbing to occur, explains Cook.
“When getting to know someone it’s natural to send out do-they-like-me feelers to see if the other person is even interested,” Cook says.
Flirty texts, brushing your hand next to theirs as you pass them, and liking their posts on social media “are normal and appropriate,” she adds. “It becomes problematic when the interactions don’t shift towards moving forward with the relationship.” (Here’s how to stop fighting with your partner.)
A numbers game
According to Dew, there are many reasons a person may breadcrumb, including insecurity, lack of emotional intelligence, immaturity, and disrespect, whether intentional or unintentional.
It could also be a numbers game. The breadcrumber flirts with a number of people “with the intent of moving forward with the most interesting choice that will meet their desired goal—sex, love, attention or even simply entertainment,” Dew says.
Missing emotional and sexual satisfaction
The pandemic has us all feeling stir-crazy, and craving attention and excitement, explains Laurel House, dating and relationship coach and founder of Love Actually Academy. She says breadcrumbing may be more common now as a result.
“Some people breadcrumb because they are not in a place where they can meet people right now, but they are missing the emotional and even sexual satisfaction of a relationship,” says House. “Conversations on the phone or text can lead to emotional connection. Suddenly you don’t feel so alone.” (Are your exes similar? Here’s why you have a type in relationships.)
But breadcrumbers, in the end, act out of selfishness. “I see breadcrumbing taking place from a completely ego-centered place,” says House. The breadcrumber “wants to feel good about themselves, and is typically breadcrumbing several people at once to gain a perceived emotional high.”
Is breadcrumbing ever appropriate?
During the early stages of dating, when you’re potentially building a relationship, everybody breadcrumbs, says Cook. “It’s natural and normal to not want to ‘open up your sandwich’ completely to a stranger and instead throw them a small taste to see if they like it. This is a safe way to slowly get to know if someone digs you or not,” she adds.
But “once someone has tasted your crumb and indicates they like it, or don’t, move on to the next step,” she says. “You either give them a proper bite—a real date—or you stop interacting with them.”
And while it’s natural to put out feelers when getting to know someone, Dew says, those feelers should be followed up with clear intention expressed through action. Breadcrumbing once or twice is okay only if it’s an isolated incident followed by proper connection.
“The only way breadcrumbing can be appropriate is if both parties understand and are okay with the occasional flurry of connection via text or phone,” says House. “Perhaps neither of them is really in a place to be in a relationship, but they have an understanding that sometimes it’s just fun to have that connection and to know that they are thought of and cared for by someone else.”
When breadcrumbing isn’t appropriate
But once you’re fully in a relationship, breadcrumbing isn’t appropriate, agrees Laura.
“It’s one thing to be casual friends with someone, it’s another thing to lead them on in a romantic way,” she says. “In my relationship counseling with singles and couples, I’ve seen many examples of people who want to find a genuine connection feel devastated over wasted time eating the breadcrumbs of someone who had zero intention of commitment in the first place.” (Here are the signs for when to break up.)
Breadcrumbing: Online vs in-person
Online dating has become such an entrenched part of the dating world, particularly during the pandemic. However, despite its convenience and many pluses, there are minuses, too—including the prevalence of breadcrumbing. (Read these personal stories on dating during coronavirus.)
“It’s easier to do online because there are so many ‘roads’ to drop the crumbs: TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, texts, Instagram,” says Cook. “However, humans have been dropping crumbs way before Hansel and Gretel. Offering small pieces of ourselves to someone else to see how they respond is one of the first steps in establishing a relationship.”
When interacting with someone in person, it’s harder to drop crumbs without that person picking up on them and confronting you to your face, says Cook. “Online interactions afford physical space and the ability to ‘ignore’ someone when they bring us our crumbs.” (Worried you’re being gaslighted? Here are some gaslighting examples.)
Dew agrees that breadcrumbing is not unique to online. “While breadcrumbing is much more common in online dating, the same is true for in real-life connections and relationships of all types and at all stages,” she says.
Dew recommends keeping your eyes peeled for developing relationships, or expanding relationships with those who show up, follow through and display investment in you and the relationship you’re building.
Ghosting for weeks, even after you’ve moved from online to real life, only to resurface later is a sign of breadcrumbing, says Laura.
“Two people may go on a date, have an amazing time, feel so connected person,” then the breadcrumber/ghoster disappears for weeks, only to reemerge with excuses of how busy they’ve been. (Here’s how to tell if your spouse is micro-cheating.)
Breadcrumbing in relationships
Sometimes, breadcrumbing can even happen in relationships, says House.
“You might be the center of someone’s world for a week, then they disappear for two weeks only to resurface and make you feel like the most important person on earth for another couple of dates,” she says. “Then they’re gone again.”
House sees this commonly, where one partner gives the other just enough to stay together, yet leaving them perennially unsatisfied. “You never feel like the priority because something else always is: work or friends or just anything but you,” she says. (These are the signs you’re dating a narcissist.)
How should you respond if somebody is breadcrumbing you?
Once you’ve realized that somebody is breadcrumbing you, experts recommend checking in with yourself and having some tough talks.
Check in with yourself
“Regardless of your relationship status with this person—friends can throw breadcrumbs, too—ask yourself what it is you want from this person,” says Cook. “If they aren’t able to provide what you need and want then you should limit interacting with them and set up boundaries to protect your heart and soul.”
Communicate your needs
If you want to stay in the relationship, clearly and firmly communicate your needs.
“It’s best to confront them by stating the behavior and kindly yet boldly share your boundaries and expectations with them, letting them know this behavior is not okay with you,” Laura says. “You’ll then see what their true intentions are by what happens next.”
However, if you realize this person doesn’t want commitment when you do, it’s time to cut off the contact and move on. (Here’s how to build trust in a relationship.)
Don’t get fully involved
And the best course of action is not to get fully involved with a breadcrumber in the first place.
“When getting to know someone and considering them as a romantic partner, I always recommend looking for a fairly equal energetic exchange,” says Dew. “This means investing time and energy in those who are investing time and energy in you.”
How can you recognize when it’s time to move on?
Ending a relationship is never easy, but it’s particularly awkward to make a clean break when the other person has one foot in, one foot out. However, for Dew, it’s simple: “When you no longer feel equally pursued it may be time to consider moving on.”
Failure to respect your boundaries and expectations
If you continue to clearly express your boundaries and expectations, and the other person still doesn’t change their behavior and patterns, that’s a cue it’s time to move on, says Laura.
If breadcrumbing is habitual and cyclical
“Look at the overall of your relationship with them,” says House. “Are they around for flurries of excitement and then they disappear? Did it only happen once or twice? Or is this habitual and cyclical?”
People can go through rough patches and might be ill. They might be having difficulties at work or struggles in their personal life. “But if it’s not situational and instead it is a mindset or a choice—or just who they are—then this is not healthy for you,” House says. “A one-sided relationship will always end in pain.”
Put yourself first
Ultimately, as difficult as it might be, you need to gather the courage to put yourself first.
“If you’ve made efforts to ‘make it work’ but the relationship just isn’t going where you want it to go, cut through the woods and find a new trail free of crumbs,” says Cook. “Breadcrumb relationships aren’t meant to last or go anywhere. Some people just enjoy flirting and never intend to follow through.”
Cook cautions against losing sleep or developing anxiety and stress over someone who is breadcrumbing you. “Remind yourself your butter is too thick and creamy to spread on a few crumbs,” she says. “Wait for that slice that’s gonna treat you nice.”
Next, here are some self-care quotes for your mind and body.)
- Laurel House, dating and relationship coach and founder of Love Actually Academy
- Danielle Laura, MA, counselor and author of Dear Love, I'm Ready for You
- Bethany Cook, PsyD, clinical psychologist, health service psychologist, a board-certified music therapist, and author of What it’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting
- Rachel Eva Dew, DNM, board-certified doctor of natural medicine, integrative life transformation coach, and co-founder of the first integrative telemedicine platform, ModiHealth