If you feel like you’re giving a partner more than you’re getting, like you’re riding an emotional roller coaster, or like you’re being led on, you might be dating a breadcrumber. Here’s how to identify breadcrumbing behavior — and what to do about it.
What is breadcrumbing?
Breadcrumbing is when someone gives you just enough time and attention to keep you interested, but not enough to result in the kind of full-fledged relationship you may be seeking — almost as though they’re leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to be followed, without an end destination. Psychologist QuaVaundra Perry, PhD tells O.school, “Usually breadcrumb situations are exciting and hard to let go because they operate on the fantasy of attaining something that is hard to reach.”
According to Silva Depanian, MFT, the early signs can feel almost normal in a new relationship. “It’s common for people to not feel immediately comfortable introducing all of themselves, so they put out ‘crumbs,’ allowing others to have a taste and see who likes the flavor of their personality,” Depanian explains. “However, while sending flirty texts and liking social media posts might be par for the course at the beginning of the dating process, these actions can become problematic if they continue with no shift towards moving forward in the relationship.”
How to know if you’re dating a breadcrumber
“Common signs [of breadcrumbing] include unequal investment in time spent, shallow emotional response, or being ‘hot and cold’ in interactions and commitment,” explains Perry. To know if you’re being breadcrumbed, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my partner regularly initiate contact and quality time?
- Do I get leftovers with regards to their time?
- Do they show me they are emotionally connected in limited ways, or at times that are on their terms only?
- Do I sense this relationship is as important to them as it is to me?
- Do they “talk a big game” about loving me or wanting me, but have inconsistent or non-existent actions to support their words?
3 Breadcrumbing examples
1. You feel like the center of your partner’s world (for a limited time). An expert breadcrumber will make it seem as if their partner is their priority for a limited number of dates, messaging them in between meetings, commenting on their social media channels, or agreeing to meet up for some form of intimacy. Shortly after, you might notice they disappear or become mysteriously unavailable for a worrying amount of time, only to resurface with excuses for their absence.
2. You notice your partner is ambiguous or noncommittal in scheduling dates. If you’re trying to schedule time with a breadcrumber, they may offer half-hearted promises to get together “soon,” without actually setting a concrete time. This is intended to keep you lusting after that implied date, when they may not mean to take you out at all.
3. Your partner maintains “peripheral contact” to stay on your radar. A breadcrumber may crop up through various channels of social media. Think: commenting on your Tik Tok post, viewing an Instagram story, or replying to your text with a meme. This type of recurring contact, which serves only to keep this person in your thoughts, can cause a spike in anxiety or a flurry of questions such as “when will they reach out next?”
Breadcrumbing in dating can have negative effects
In a 2020 study, 626 adults between the ages of 18 and 40 who had experienced ghosting and breadcrumbing in the last year completed an online survey. The survey focused on three factors: satisfaction with life, loneliness, and helplessness. The study found that, if left unsolved, breadcrumbing can result in its victims feeling less satisfied with life, perceiving themselves as more helpless or alone. For this reason, it’s very important to address the issue head-on if you feel like breadcrumbing is happening to you.
How to respond to breadcrumbing
“If you feel confused, insecure, or hurt by this cycle, it's important to articulate how their behavior is impacting you, and set boundaries regarding the kind of commitment you would like in a relationship,” Depanian advises.
No matter which breadcrumbing behaviors your partner is most prone to, there is a corresponding boundary response. If they are often vague, ambiguous, or flakey about making plans, Depanian suggests taking it upon yourself to be firmly specific. Suggest a date, a time, a specific place. If instead your partner leaves their trail digitally, reappearing on your social media with likes or occasional comments to stay on your radar, Depanian says, “you can either set a boundary with them, noting what kind of interaction you prefer, or set a boundary with yourself when you notice their negative impact on your emotions, and choose to block or mute them.”
Be mindful of whether or not the breadcrumber’s behavior is improving after you’ve communicated your wants, needs, and expectations.
The bottom line
If you feel like you’re dating a breadcrumber, it’s important to know you are valid in wanting stability, security, and emotional consistency. If you feel you cannot get those things out of your current relationship and the breadcrumber is not changing their behavior to meet your needs, it might be time to break up and walk away.