What Is Relationship Breadcrumbing? Experts Sound Off On The Toxic Dating Trend

Don’t settle for crumbs.

by Natalia Lusinski
relationship breadcrumbing

Let’s say you’re interested in somebody and you think they’re interested in you, too — they’ll reach out every few days and send you flirty messages. But the relationship isn’t really progressing — apparently there’s a term for this now, as this type of dating cycle is becoming. more and more common. It’s called relationship breadcrumbing. But what is it exactly? According to experts, this is when someone is keeping you interested just enough to keep you around. “Simply, it’s leading someone on,” Thomas Edwards, Jr., founder of The Professional Wingman, tells TZR in an email. “Breadcrumbing is flirting and enticing a date or romantic partner without follow-through, being non-committal, and with as little effort as possible.” And in this online dating era we’re (still) living in, this non-committal behavior is more rampant than ever.

Shan Boodram, Bumble's sex and relationships expert, adds that the “breadcrumber” sporadically, and inconsistently, engages with you. “They show you enough attention to keep you interested in a potential relationship or opportunity, even if they don’t intend to become fully involved or committed to you,” she tells TZR in an email. “It’s essentially giving someone enough ‘crumbs’ of attention to keep them on the hook, but not enough to make you feel fully secure or comfortable within the relationship.” Leading someone on is a tale as old as time, she says, and can occur both on and offline. However, the term “breadcrumbing” has become a topic of conversation within the past decade or so given the proliferation of social media, where it’s easier than ever to connect with someone after weeks, or months, of not talking to them, she explains.

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Common Signs Of Breadcrumbing

In essence, breadcrumbing is a manipulation technique to string someone along and have them depend on you, Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend The Mind, tells TZR in an email. “Breadcrumbers will like your social media post from a year ago, tag you in a random post, and/or send you a video without a caption — and then ignore any response you send them back,” she says. “In other words, communication is on their terms without any intention behind it. The only intention they have is the manipulative tactic of leading someone on.” In addition, she says a breadcrumber’s conversation with you is often shallow and doesn’t carry much substance to it — they do the minimum to assure you they are still lingering on your radar.

Edwards, too, says there are several signs you’re being breadcrumbed, including if communication is inconsistent — the person texts you all day one day, and then you don’t hear from them for days. “Regarding digital communication, they use multiple platforms to be more passive-aggressive — they won’t respond to your text, but you’ll see they liked your Facebook post or watched your Instagram Story,” he says. Or they may message you mostly at night or “after hours” without making clear plans. “Usually, that means it’s a booty call, like texting, ‘WYD?’ (What are you doing?),” he says. And if they’re noncommittal, that’s also a tell-tale sign. “They won’t lock in a date and are always having trouble finding time to get together. They may say, ‘We should definitely get together soon!’ But then they won’t make any real plans.”

Why People Breadcrumb

Breadcrumbing can be infuriating — especially if you actually like the person doing it and would like them to make, and follow-through, on plans. So why don’t they? Hafeez notes that there is not one linear answer as to why people do it. “Some have commitment issues while others are not looking for anything serious,” she says. “When a person has commitment issues, they could potentially like you; however, not for a long-term scenario. Instead of coming clean, the breadcrumber will keep the other person in their life as a back-up. For the people not prioritizing a relationship, they just want to have fun and keep whomever they find interesting around.” She says breadcrumbing also occurs for people who are not in a monogamous relationship. “They want to keep their options expanded without closing the doors on the past,” she says. “Through an egotistical viewpoint, breadcrumbers do it to boost their self-esteem and not feel lonely. Put simply, they want attention and to feel wanted. When feeling down, the breadcrumber will send out random texts to numerous people in the hopes of getting replies and attention.”

Hafeez also points out that being behind a phone screen and communicating through online platforms makes breadcrumbing easier than ever. “With a simple swipe on dating apps, you can make a move without even having to move,” she says. “People feel comfortable not having to make an actual effort and would rather take the easy way out.”

Edwards adds that, other times, people don’t realize they’re breadcrumbing you. “They like the attention and will do just enough to keep it going, not thinking they’re doing anything wrong,” he says. “Yet, other times, people who do know they’re doing it just want the attention, knowing you’re always thinking about them. And while they may feel good, they don’t do much to make you feel good.” He says they may be afraid of commitment or actually don’t have the time to invest in a relationship, so this gives them just enough attention without having to invest too much energy. But they could also be dating multiple people — and keeping their options open by feeding you crumbs — or they are feeling alone and don’t want to feel that way. So breadcrumbing you gives them an ego boost.

Boodram, too, says there are various reasons a person can breadcrumb: maybe dating isn’t a priority for the other person. “Or, if you’re familiar with attachment styles, they're likely extremely avoidantly attached,” she explains. “Perhaps they feel too guilty to end things completely, or they may not even realize that they’re leading you on.” And for those who may knowingly breadcrumb you, it may most likely be due to needing a quick ego boost and need for attention at that moment. “They want you to invest more than they plan on reciprocating,” she says. “In short, they don't want to share their cake, but they want access to yours. The ‘cake’ they're after can range from sexual access, sexual exclusivity, gifts, attention, emotional support, or an ego boost.”

Certain dating apps have a dating intentions option, wherein you can specify what type of connection you’re looking for. “On Bumble, you can be transparent about the type of relationship you want to build by using their ‘Date Intentions’ Badge,” says Boodram. “Seeing that someone is looking for a ‘Relationship’ vs. ‘Something Casual’ — or they say they’re ‘Not Sure Yet’ may be a good indication of how their conversations will go with you.”

And, these days, it’s simple to breadcrumb someone. In part, Boodram says it’s due to being able to connect with others so easily because of the rise of social media and the digital space. “[You can] foster some incredible relationships — but there’s the flip side, too,” she says. “People can immediately stop a conversation within its tracks with little-to-no accountability, and pick it back up as if nothing had ever happened. In addition, because most people are meeting online more instead of through mutual parties, some people take advantage of the lack of accountability in selfish, and often harmful, ways.” Edwards, too, thinks technology has made it easier for people to breadcrumb. “Technology has created more levels of communication and interaction that simulate connection,” he says. “But we’ve become more desensitized, and have since reprioritized meaningful connected interactions, ones that are in person. Five years ago, for example, getting a like from your crush on a IG post was a big deal, but today, people want more than that.”

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A Better Alternative To Breadcrumbing

Boodram points out that there is a silver lining to breadcrumbing — well, to the term, that is. “Though it’s unfortunate that dating trends such as ‘gaslighting’ and ‘breadcrumbing’ are gaining popularity within daily conversation, I think there’s something great about naming these actions,” she says. “That way, there’s an increased awareness so that people know what to look out for when dating someone new.” She says the alternative to breadcrumbing is engaging in ethical, mutual exchanges. “This doesn't necessarily mean it has to be equal, but each party should be fully privy to what the other is willing to offer,” she says. “Then the person can decide what level of investment they are comfortable with, given that information. So, in a perfect world, instead of leading someone on with the elusive promise that ‘One day, things might be different’ — if the person just holds on — a potential breadcrumber could just be open about where they’re at.” Boodram says they might say, “Here's what I enjoy from you and our time together, and honestly, based on where I am at right now, here's what I think I can provide in return right now. Do you think our arrangement could still work?”

And if you’re the one being breadcrumbed and getting tired of it, Edwards says there are steps you can take to put an end to it once and for all — at least with your current breadcrumber. He says you can see how interested the person actually is by getting them to commit to a real date. “Give them a specific time and location and see if they will commit,” he says. “If they blow you off, tell them that’s not okay. Let them know that it’s on them to commit to plans, and until that happens, get on with your life.” He also says you can switch up the replies. “Don’t fall into the GIF back-and-forth or let them get away with texting only at night,” he says. “Send open-ended questions that can’t be answered in one word or with an emoji. And don’t reply to text messages at night — instead, reach out during the day. Pattern interrupts are always a great way to see their commitment level.” And, finally, you don’t have to tolerate it and can just say goodbye. “Their little use of energy to stay connected is taking up more of your energy, so it may be best to cut it off,” he says. “That way, you can free up space for someone who respects your time and really wants to put in the effort.”

Hafeez adds that being frank and setting clear boundaries is essential to avoid breadcrumbing. “A person who breadcrumbs will avoid coming clean with their true intentions, which is why the receiving end needs to put their foot down and express their thoughts,” she explains. Like Edwards, she says that changing your response to a breadcrumber will allow you to feel less powerless. “Most importantly, if your mental health is affected and you are unhappy, it is best to say goodbye.” She says you can either tell the breadcrumber you cannot continue this engagement or block them: With the push of a button, you can end contact with this person — and have your sanity back.