Being ghosted never feels good, but a lesser-known dating infraction—called breadcrumbing—may actually be worse. Ghosting, at the very least, provides a sense of finality. But breadcrumbing provides a false sense of hope and leaves a person wondering and waiting for a relationship that likely won't come.
What is breadcrumbing?
Breadcrumbing is a distinct way of leading someone on. The person communicates frequently enough to keep the other person interested (aka leaving "breadcrumbs") but not enough to form an actual relationship, according to Chamin Ajjan, M.S., LCSW, A-CBT, sex therapist and author of Seeking Soulmate: Ditch the Dating Game and Find Real Connection.
They'll reach out enough to give the other person an idea of what an authentic connection might look like, Ajjan says, but leave them hungry for more.
To understand what it looks like, Ajjan and certified sex and dating coach Myisha Battle, M.S., share a few examples of breadcrumbing below.
- Texting, emailing, or direct messaging (DMing) every so often but not responding to requests to spend time together.
- Commenting on social media posts but not engaging in direct communication.
- Being attentive and flirty in person but not making a move to hang out again.
- Sending memes via text or social media with no other communication.
- Texting frequently but not really getting to know each other.
- Making ambiguous plans with you that never seem to pan out.
- One day they seem totally into you, and the next they can't be found.
- Only interested in sex.
- When you question the "relationship," they make you feel guilty or responsible for any problems.
- Inconsistent communication (i.e., they don't respond to texts but hit you up on Snapchat).
How to respond to breadcrumbing:
Know your worth.
Recognize what you want out of a relationship and that you deserve better than being strung along.
To figure out whether or not the person you're talking to is serious, Ajjan suggests asking them out on a date. "Breadcrumbers tend to keep things distant on social media and other digital communication platforms," she says. "If they can't commit, keep it moving."
Tapping into your own self-worth can be hard, but it will help you realize that breadcrumbers aren't worth your time.
"If something is making you feel uncomfortable or pushing your boundaries, be clear about that," Ajjan says. If they don't respect your boundaries, they're probably not interested in a real or healthy relationship. Being direct will make their true intentions clear.
Break unhealthy patterns before they start. "If they are defensive, make you feel guilty, or make you feel responsible for their behavior, call them out," Ajjan says.
This will either lead to honest conversations and progress in the relationship, or it can prove that the person doesn't take the relationship seriously. "Either way, you will have more information, and you can make a choice that is in your best interest," she says.
Decide what you want.
"Once you recognize what's going on, you can make better decisions about whether or not you want to participate," Battle says. If you're not looking for a serious relationship either and feel comfortable with the minor flirtations, that's OK. Just be aware of how much energy you have for the back-and-forth, she says. "If it is fun and interesting to you to engage with, go ahead! If not, feel free to block."
Why people do it.
People who leave dating breadcrumbs aren't always aware they're doing it. In fact, Battle says it's a pretty common aspect of dating. When two people aren't quite sure how they feel about each other, they can engage in this process of breadcrumbing.
According to Ajjan, insecurity and loneliness can also lead someone to breadcrumb without realizing they're doing it. These people need multiple "relationships" to boost their self-esteem. They tend to convince themselves they aren't doing anything wrong.
Worst of all are the people who purposefully breadcrumb to string others along. "They do this to feel relevant, to keep you from moving on, or to keep their options open," Ajjan explains. Essentially, you're being kept as a backup.
The bottom line.
Breadcrumbing can be harmless and flirtatious but only if both parties are aware it's happening. "In most cases, if someone is leaving breadcrumbs, they are not really interested in a real relationship with you," Ajjan says. Understand what you want out of a relationship, know your worth, and set healthy boundaries to avoid disappointment and heartbreak.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.