An Important Announcement from Garbo

What is Breadcrumbing? A Breakdown of The Toxic Dating Trend & What to Do About It

February 15, 2023
Radical Creasy

Gaslighting, breadcrumbing, negging – everything has a nickname in the online dating world these days. While these terms are frequently used casually, they’re unfortunately a big part of modern dating culture and knowing what they mean, how to identify them, and what to do if you find yourself in these situations is crucial to your emotional and physical safety, both on and offline.

If you’ve heard about breadcrumbing, and you’re wondering how to recognize it and deal with it—you’re in the right place.This piece will cover what breadcrumbing means, signs of breadcrumbing, real-life examples, and what to do about it.

Sometimes, breadcrumbing can be a harmful outcome of unintentional behavior, but it can also point to a larger pattern of emotional abuse and other dating red flags. Read on to learn about breadcrumbing and how to handle it. You’re not alone – we’re here to help!

What Does Breadcrumbing Mean?

Breadcrumbing is a dating term that refers to stringing someone along digitally, usually on dating apps or social media. Put simply, it is a manipulation tactic that involves offering limited and inconsistent communication to a potential partner with the intent or result of making them question whether or not the breadcrumber is actually interested in them.

The term originated from the fairytale story of Hansel and Gretel, a winding narrative of how two children followed a trail of breadcrumbs to a candy house – but the nice-looking house was home to a not-so-nice witch who had intentions to eat them. Moral of the story? Sometimes, breadcrumbs can lead you to something wonderful, but if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Signs You’re Being Breadcrumbed

While most dating questions come with complicated answers, there are some common signs to look out for if you think you're being breadcrumbed. This list is not exhaustive, but it should give you a sense of what breadcrumbing can look like to help you identify it.

Picking up on breadcrumbing can be hard because it is a manipulation tactic, so the effects of it typically involve questioning realities (think gaslighting), including whether or not you’re worthy of attention, and whether or not the person in question actually cares about you. Some warning signs of breadcrumbing are easier to spot than others, but they’re all important!

Lack of Substance in Communications

When you’re being breadcrumbed, you may have limited contact with a person, and the conversations you do have are lacking in substance and depth, often leaving you craving more. This can reveal a lack of commitment and desire to put in effort to get to know you on a deeper level, as well as a deeper desire to play with your feelings.

This can look like:

  • Only sending short texts
  • Not responding in depth
  • Avoiding serious conversations, or sticking to surface level topics
  • Only wanting to talk or spend time with you if it’s about sex

Some conversations can be lighthearted, but when every single one gets you nowhere, and you never know where you stand, you’re probably being breadcrumbed.

Infrequent, Inconsistent & Micro Communications

Do you crave consistent and frequent communication with a person, only to find that they respond days after you reach out? “Hot and cold” behavior can be a telltale sign of breadcrumbing.

Some red flags include:

  • Frequent contact followed by days of radio silence
  • Commenting on your posts, but not texting you back
  • Flirting or asking you out, but not making in person plans
  • Showing more interest when you back off
  • Only sending emojis, memes or short texts

Infrequent communication can be okay in situations where someone is able to explain their behavior, but it can become a problem when the necessary communication is neglected.

Avoidance of Commitment to Plans or Labels

Breadcrumbers often avoid commitments to plans or labels. For instance, when you try to have a conversation about where your relationship is going, they either don't answer or give you an inadequate response.

This can look like:

  • Avoiding more serious, lengthy, or involved conversations
  • Being vague or unclear on where they stand with you
  • Refusal to or avoidance of picking a label, calling you their partner, or having a committed relationship
  • They ask you out, but don’t follow through
  • Flaking on or blowing off plans, and changing plans last minute
  • Deflecting or denying accountability for harm they’ve caused

In essence, you may never know where you stand with them, because they just don’t communicate.

Breadcrumbing Examples

The Late-Night Texter: This is the quintessential “u up?” text, also known as a booty call. This is a last-resort attempt at connection during the loneliest hours of the night, requiring little time or energy, and a common breadcrumbing behavior.

The Semi-Ghoster: This person will like all your social media posts, or respond to your story in the dms, but can’t respond to your text messages. The real question is, why are you ghosting? You’re already on your phone!

The Avoider: They’ll respond to your NSFW photo, and they’re quick to jump at the chance to hookup, but when you try to meet up for a real date or talk about something they did that bothered you, they’ll ignore you.

Why People Breadcrumb

Some breadcrumbers behave in these manipulative patterns out of habit or due to mental illness, but it can also be due to more deeply rooted emotional immaturity, a need for validation, commitment issues or a personality disorder like narcissism.

The following are some examples of why someone might engage in breadcrumbing behavior:

  • Avoidant/Insecure Attachment: People with avoidant or insecure attachment styles often non-committal and steer clear of emotional discomfort, resulting in non-confrontational, avoidant behavior and conflict aversion. Since they probably never learned how to have a healthy relationship during their formative years, they avoid the vulnerability required to learn those skills.
  • Narcissism/Power and Control: Breadcrumbing can be a way to make someone “addicted” to them and use their emotions to manipulate them, and it can play into a larger pattern of narcissistic abuse. Narcissists often seek power and control over others (their “supply”) through manipulative behavior, which can include love-bombing, followed by pulling back to the point where the victim feels like they “need” the narcissist.
  • Insecurities/Low Self-Esteem: Low self-esteem can cause someone to feel undeserving of attention, which is why breadcrumbing behavior is so common in insecure people. It allows them to maintain distance while still expressing interest, so they’re less likely to get hurt.
  • They’re Hiding Something: Whether they’re already in a relationship or disguising the fact that they’re playing the field, breadcrumbing behavior can be a sign that someone has something to hide. Trust your gut – if you feel like they’re hiding something, they probably are.
  • Mental Health: Depression, social anxiety, and other mental health troubles can prevent someone from being consistently available or responsive. While this is understandable and sometimes acceptable when justified, it’s important to remember that you deserve to be with someone who is available, wants to be with you, and can tell you when something’s up!

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should provide a good baseline for explaining breadcrumbing behavior. Remember that you don’t have to tolerate this kind of behavior, and you are free to end a connection for any reason.

How to Respond to Breadcrumbing

While there’s no one-size-fits-all response to breadcrumbing, there are a few effective ways to figure out what you want and get there (and you might even find some self-love and self-care in the process)!

Consider What You Want: Instead of focusing so heavily on what they want and what they’re feeling, take a moment to consider what it is that you want out of this connection. Do you want a relationship? Something casual? What would it be like to be with this person? To date someone who’s available? Think about what you want and need in a relationship to consider it healthy, and don’t settle for less than that.

Remember the Reality: Remind yourself what it feels like when they don’t respond, ignore you, or leave you with one-word answers. Is this how you want your potential partner(s) to make you feel? It can also be helpful to remind yourself what they’re missing by not treating you right; maybe you’re a great cook and every partner you’ve had has benefited from that, but they won’t put in the work, so it’s not for them!

Confront Them: Once you know what you want, it might be time to talk it out. While confronting a person is not required in dealing with breadcrumbing, it can help to clear up miscommunications (and maybe even allow the relationship to blossom)! Maybe they’re manipulative, maybe they’re terrible at texting. You’ll never know if you don’t open the lines of communication. But only do this if you think they’ll be receptive to it or at least not cause harm to you or manipulate you.

Set Boundaries: Telling someone what you want is a great opportunity to find out if they see partnerships as collaborative! Teaching someone how to treat you and giving them a chance to adjust their behavior is great, but waiting for someone to change is usually a dangerous game. Try setting some boundaries, and then reassess.

Cut the Cord: If none of the above steps worked in your favor – or you’re done feeling like you’re replaceable – you can tell them that the connection isn’t working for you, and move on. You deserve someone who wants to be with you, and if they aren’t that person, you have a right to protect your peace!

Overview & Next Steps

Remember: it's not your fault you're being breadcrumbed. However, the choice is up to you with regards to how you handle it.

If you’re still wondering what to do next, you can take our Should We Break Up? quiz, which can help you closer examine how you’re feeling in order to make the best decision about your situation.

As always, if you're having a bad gut feeling, we recommend running a search on Garbo to see if this individual has a history of harmful or violent behavior as breadcrumbing can be an early red flag or indicator to an abusive or harmful person.

Whatever you choose, know that your decision is valid and no one else can tell you what’s right or wrong for you. Your safety and comfort come first, always!

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