Here's How To Spot Breadcrumbing + What To Do About It, According To Relationship Experts
Dating is all fun and games until the object of your affection starts leaving you "breadcrumbs." A newly coined term which essentially describes leading someone on, getting "breadcrumbed" can feel even worse than being ghosted or outright rejected, because it keeps you coming back for more.
Here's how to spot breadcrumbing, plus what to do about it, from relationship experts.
What is breadcrumbing?
Breadcrumbing is a dating tactic that involves stringing someone along with "breadcrumbs" of attention in order to keep them interested. As sex therapist Chamin Ajjan, M.S., LCSW, A-CBT previously told mindbodygreen, they'll communicate frequently enough to make you think they're interested, but it doesn't actually go anywhere.
And as psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, M.S., Ph.D. adds, breadcrumbing has become all too common (and easy) in the age of DMs, memes, and social media, because it takes virtually no effort for them to "like" your Instagram story, but it leaves you thinking they're still interested.
"So there's no real connection, no reciprocal conversation, or not even wanting to make plans with somebody—it's like they're falsely engaging you, if you will," Nuñez explains.
If you feel like you're getting mixed signals, those little instances where you think they're interested are the breadcrumbs. According to couples' therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC, when someone is breadcrumbing, they might be all up in your DMs one week, for instance, "and then for no particular reason, [they] change their behavior, ghost you, avoid you for a period of time, change their tone, or act guarded," she says.
7 signs of breadcrumbing
What qualifies certain behaviors as "breadcrumbing" is often not the behavior itself, but whether there is follow through with the behavior. If someone flakes on plans but earnestly attempts to reschedule and does show up, for example, they might not be breadcrumbing you. But if they consistently cancel and/or don't try to raincheck, then you might want to consider is they're breadcrumbing.
"It's about the follow through. If there's no follow through, then that's what bread crumbing is," Nuñez tells mindbodygreen.
Sure, some people might say they're "just not great texters," but the truth is, if someone is interested in you, they'll make an effort to communicate. If they're texting you every so often but not responding to requests to spend time together, or your texts are pretty much devoid of any real conversation with depth, they're likely not looking for anything more.
Social media likes and DMs
Commenting or liking social media posts without engaging in direct communication is not evidence that someone wants to be with you. Are they being cheeky? Maybe. Do they want to commit? Probably not. This is especially true if you reply to their replies, and they don't answer.
According to Nuñez, sending memes, replying to your story, or liking your posts is almost like they're saying, "Don't forget to keep me on your back burner, because you're on mine."
Flirting without follow up
While breadcrumbing has become more pervasive with the rise of social media, breadcrumbs can happen offline, too. For example, Nuñez says, this person might be attentive and flirty in real life, but they never actually want to go on a date or get to know you on a deeper level.
Plans that keep falling through
We've all met those people who say "Let's hang out!" and then it never happens. Whether this person makes empty gestures to hang out with you, cancels plans, or tells you they're busy, "but should be more open next month," you can safely assume they aren't interested in prioritizing a relationship with you.
Hot & cold affection
Tying back to the idea of mixed signals, the positive signals are the breadcrumbs, and the negative signals are the red flags that you are, in fact, being breadcrumbed. One day they might seem totally into you, and the next, they've gone totally M.I.A.
Only interested in sex
There is a very real possibility that the person breadcrumbing you is using you for sex. We hate to say it, but sometimes, some people want to have their cake and eat it too—and by that, we mean have all the benefits of a relationship without having to be in a relationship.
If you're getting booty-called, or the breadcrumbs this person gives are always sexual in nature, Nuñez says, consider is a sign that they're just interested in sex and nothing more.
Questions about the relationship are shut down
Finally, another big sign of breadcrumbing is avoiding (or completely shutting down) the topic of taking the relationship further. They might rattle off excuses like being too busy, not wanting a relationship, or needing more time. Take those excuses at face value and don't believe the breadcrumbs that are placed to keep you in their orbit.
Why do people breadcrumb?
According to Ajjan, insecurity and loneliness can lead people to breadcrumb without even realizing they're doing it. These people need multiple "relationships" to boost their self-esteem, and they tend to convince themselves they aren't doing anything wrong.
Of course, some people may purposefully breadcrumb in order to string someone along. "They do this to feel relevant, to keep you from moving on, or to keep their options open," Ajjan explains. And as Nuñez adds, they might want attention, and especially attention from other people. "They like to know they have somebody in their back pocket," she says.
It's also possible that people who breadcrumb have an avoidant attachment style. As clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., previously wrote for mindbodygreen, people with this attachment style are most comfortable with superficial hookups or short-term relationships, while any long-term connections tend to be detached and self-focused in nature. "An attitude of aloof superiority can often be evident in those with a dismissive-avoidant style," she explains—and that can definitely look like breadcrumbing.
The impact of breadcrumbing
Breadcrumbing might seem like all fun and games, but it can be detrimental to the person on the receiving end (and it's often people with an anxious attachment style who fall victim to it), according to Nuñez. "It's kind of like Vegas when you play slot machines—you know a slot machine is going to go off at some point, you just don't know when—so you keep spending more money because you think you'll win," she explains.
Sticking with the gambling analogy, the breadcrumber is the slot machine, and you're the gambler. Each glimmer of a small "win" on the slot machine keeps you coming back for the jackpot, which of course, never happens.
Therapist and relationship expert Ken Page, LMFT, refers to this as an "attraction of deprivation." You're repeatedly drawn into relationships with emotionally unavailable people, which can be damaging to your self-esteem and trust in others. You become obsessed with receiving these breadcrumbs, despite the relationship not actually offering you any connection, warmth, or love. In the end, you just wind up feeling confused, burned, and unlovable.
And the more an anxious person clings, the more the avoidant breadcrumber will, well, avoid. "Then when they realize the anxious person is pulling away, they'll give them a breadcrumb again to keep them to keep them hanging on," Nuñez adds.
How to handle being breadcrumbed
If you're being breadcrumbed, the best thing to do is to stop engaging with the person and the crumbs they're leaving behind. As Nuñez suggests, have an open and honest conversation with them about what you're looking for, "And if they're not looking for that, move on—just don't respond to the DMS or the memes or the likes or the comments."
Easier said than done, of course, because by broaching the conversation, you're risking rejection. But ask yourself if you really want what this person is giving you. Do you really want to be treated this way? Is this the kind of loving relationship you're looking for? "Because if this is what you're setting up, then this person is always going to treat you like this," Nuñez says.
Plus, there are far worse things than being rejecting, and to that end, falling victim to breadcrumbing requires a look inward. Feeling like you need the love and affection of an emotionally unavailable person is a glaring sign of limerence at best—and low self-esteem at worst. If someone is leaving you feeling bad about yourself for wanting a relationship, they're not the one. It's really that simple.
"It's okay to want something serious, so it's really about admitting to yourself that this isn't the type of relationship that you want and this isn't what you deserve," Nuñez tells mindbodygreen, adding, "It's understanding your self worth and what you really want."
If you're wondering how to actually break off the breadcrumbs, you might say something like, "It seems like we have different dating priorities right now and I'm not interested in what you're looking for."
And in order to avoid getting breadcrumbed going forward, remember that healthy relationships don't require guesswork or confusion. According to Nuñez, "If somebody is really interested in you, you're not going to have to guess. You'll absolutely know."
What does it mean to breadcrumb someone?
To breadcrumb someone means to string them along with occasional texts, social media likes, etc., in order to keep them interested.
Is breadcrumbing narcissistic?
Yes, breadcrumbing is an egocentric behavior that narcissist can definitely wield. However, someone breadcrumbing doesn't necessarily mean they've been diagnosed with narcissistic personal disorder.
Why would a guy breadcrumb you?
A guy might breadcrumb you because he wants to keep you on his back burner, lead you on, or keep you interested, because he likes being liked, but doesn't want a real relationship.
What to text a guy who is breadcrumbing you?
If a guy is breadcrumbing you, you might text him something along the lines of, "It seems like we have different dating priorities right now and I'm not interested in what you're looking for."
Let's not mince words: If you're hung up on someone giving you breadcrumbs, save yourself all that time, energy, and confusion, and stop taking the bait. If someone wants to be with you, you'll know. If you're second-guessing, pining for crumbs, or convincing yourself that a "like" on social media equates to love, the best thing you can do is redirect the energy you're putting towards your crush back to yourself.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.