Being ghosted by someone can hurt, but at least there’s no guessing work involved. While ghosting comes with a sense of finality, breadcrumbing leaves a lot to be desired. With social media being such a prominent force in society, it’s become much easier to 'string people along' when it comes to relationships. For many, it’s hard to decipher if someone’s 'leaving breadcrumbs' or truly seeking connection, so a false sense of hope is established.
What is breadcrumbing?
Breadcrumbing, according to psychologists, is a manipulative dating strategy whereby a person sends out non-committal signs ('breadcrumbs') to potential partners. Essentially, it’s leading people on. This tactic relies heavily on modern technology and wouldn’t be as prominent if it weren’t for social media; online platforms make checking in with other people effortless, so breadcrumbers can lure in whoever they want without expending that much energy.
According to sex therapist Chamin Ajjan:
[Breadcrumbers] will reach out enough to give the other person an idea of what an authentic connection might look like, but leave them hungry for more.
The key to breadcrumbing is showing just enough interest in someone so they get the impression that there’s potential for a relationship later on.
As with most emotionally manipulative tactics, breadcrumbing is used for the abuser’s gain and to create one-sided co-dependence in the relationship. Typically, the abuser’s self-esteem correlates directly with the attention they get from other people.
History of breadcrumbing
The name 'breadcrumbing' derives from the story of Hansel and Gretel;in the fairytale, the brother-sister duo leaves a trail of breadcrumbs behind them as they navigate an unknown forest. Even though the story ofHansel and Gretel has been around since the 1800s, breadcrumbing navigation didn’t exist until the late 1990s as a byproduct of the Internet age. Essentially, it existed to track people’s digital footprints when perusing a website (e.g. Home>> About Us>> Our Work). 'Breadcrumbs,' in this context, refers to the different locations a person visits while navigating pages and documents.
In the context of online dating, breadcrumbing spiked public interest in 2017 when psychologists and dating coaches started revealing everything they knew about these offenses.
Where are we now?
Now, breadcrumbing is a common dating term—right up there in popularity with 'ghosting” and 'gaslighting'—because psychologists and relationship experts have made their knowledge easily accessible. On top of providing people with advice, they share key red flags and behaviors to beware of. Some examples of this dating manipulation tactic include sporadic messaging, ambiguity, and gaslighting when the relationship is questioned.
Kelly Campbell, a Professor of Psychology at California State University, adds to this:
[Breadcrumbers] make plans with you but cancel...they might even go absent for periods of time.
Since they’re less invested in the relationship, they’re less invested in getting together. Campbell explains that breadcrumbers are 'inconsistent and unpredictable in their expression of interest,' and interactions with them usually leave the victim feeling confused and exasperated.
Dating experts like Erika Kybartas and Danielle Laura help to spread awareness of the phenomenon in the world of relationships, giving advice to people who find themselves grasping at breadcrumbs. Additionally, doctor and life coach Rachel Eva Dew has broadened people’s understanding by providing insight into the psychology behind breadcrumbers. According to Dew, people breadcrumb others because of insecurity, lack of emotional intelligence, immaturity, or disrespect. In some instances, breadcrumbers string multiple individuals along with 'the intent of moving forward with the most interesting choice that will meet their desired goal—sex, love, attention or even simply entertainment.'
Thanks to these discernments, victims of breadcrumbing can recognize that this type of behavior isn’t justifiable nor is it their fault.
How do I stop breadcrumbing?
1. Decide what you want. Maybe you aren’t looking for a serious relationship either and this non-committal style relationship works for you, or maybe you’ve been in the dating game for too long and need to settle down. Once you figure out what you want for yourself, you’ll be able to make your next move!
2. Be direct. The easiest way to stop breadcrumbing in its tracks is to ask the person out on a date and see what happens. If the person is interested in pursuing a relationship, they’ll say yes and follow through with the plans. If they agree, but continue canceling and rescheduling plans—that’s a red flag. If they say no, move on!
3. Call them out for their behavior. Breadcrumbers often gaslight, guilt, or blame their victims for the state of their relationship. If they attempt to do this to you, call them out on it! Either they’ll have a frank conversation with you, get defensive, or brush the issue off entirely, which can help you decide whether on not the relationship is worth maintaining.