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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

How to Spot ‘Breadcrumbing’ in Your Relationships, and What to Do About It


A pigeon pecks at seeds in a woman's outstretched palm

Photo: Ammatar (Shutterstock)

When you’re getting to know someone romantically, you should be able to expect them to be honest about their feelings for you—otherwise, why bother? But sometimes, you’ll meet someone who seems interested in you, but unwilling to actually commit to anything approaching a real relationship. If this sounds familiar, you might be a victim of ‘breadcrumbing.’

It’s a cutesy, if accurate, name for when someone seems to be continuously signaling their interest in growing your relationship—but they only give you enough to keep you coming back for more, whether that’s an unexpected late night call or a few unprompted, early morning heart eye emoji texts. A breadcrumber will never give of themselves in quantities that will truly satisfy your emotional needs—but they’ll feed you just enough to keep you from flying the coop, as it were.

What is breadcrumbing look like in a relationship?

It’s an old chestnut with a name fit for the internet age. Urban Dictionary defines breadcrumbing as follows:

When the “crush” has no intentions of taking things further, but they like the attention. So they flirt here or there, send dm/texts just to keep the person interested, knowing damn well they’re staying single.

Certainly the behavior has existed as long as humans have been courting one another; in less meme-worthy terms, it is also known as “leading someone on.” But unlike its equally noxious cousins slow-fading and ghosting, breadcrumbing is more about teasing someone for attention without really giving them much in the way of real-life, quality interaction.

Maybe this person just wants to talk to someone when they’re feeling lonely, so they’ll send a text and strike up a conversation. You appear to be building a rapport, but when you ask if they’d like to meet up in person, you get crickets in response.

The all-hours immediacy of texting and direct messaging only exacerbates the problem, notes psychologist Val Walker, writing for Psychology Today. According to one study she references, breadcrumbing leaves people tethered to their devices, waiting for alerts that may never come.

“Breadcrumbing employs reinforcers that stimulate addictive behavior (suspensefully waiting for likes, random messages, praise, encouraging comments, flirtatious texts, and photos),” Walker writes. “The basic motivator of this behavior is the anticipation of the reward.”

Obviously being breadcrumbed doesn’t feel great, but it can be easy to fall for. Not that you should beat yourself up about it—when people employ this kind of tactic, it says more about their issues than anything about you. As Kelly Campbell, a psychology professor at California State University, San Bernardino told Brides magazine, low self-esteem and a need for validation are consistent traits of people who breadcrumb. “They don’t feel comfortable or confident unless they get constant reassurance from others that they are worthy or valuable,” she said, so they frequently seek the merest form of this validation just to make themselves feel better for a moment.

What to do if you’re being breadcrumbed

There are really only two ways to put an end to the torment of breadcrumbing. You can confront the person directly, of course, but it isn’t likely to trigger a meaningful change in their behavior; still, letting them know you’ve been hurt can be cathartic. On the other hand, Walker advised talking to others about the experience, especially if it’s bothering you, to get some feelings of validation of your own.

She wrote:

Call it out by name and condemn the practice. Talk with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. They have probably been breadcrumbed at some point in their own lives as well. Or write in your journal.

Once you recognize breadcrumbing for what it is, you’ll feel more sure of yourself when you decide to simply stop taking the bait.

And finally: Never blame yourself. It isn’t your fault you’re being treated this way. Understand that you did nothing to deserve such disingenuousness. Plus, once you named and processed the presence of a breadcrumber in your life, you’re far less likely to put up with someone else trying it in the future.

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