Breadcrumbing, also known as “Hansel and Gretelling”, refers to leading someone on by contacting them sporadically and without the intention of entering into a relationship.
Breadcrumbers are not usually interested in commitment; their aim is to receive attention and feel attractive and popular in the dating world.
Breadcrumbing means metaphorically throwing someone breadcrumbs (for example, text messages, likes, and comments on social media) to hold their attention and interest.
The breadcrumber messages or otherwise contacts their victim just frequently enough for them not to lose interest but so sporadically that the relationship cannot develop. Victims are left in “standby” mode, which can lead to experiencing emotional tension and psychological distress.
When you first meet someone (virtually or in real life), it is normal to receive mixed signals, inconsistent communication, and to feel unsure about whether the relationship is going anywhere.
However, after a short while, it should become clear what each person’s intentions and desires for the relationship are. If the uncertainty and unpredictability go on for a longer period of time, it could be breadcrumbing.
In This Article
Signs of Breadcrumbing
When you are being breadcrumbed, you are in a space between hope and uncertainty. When they contact you, you feel hopeful but the irregular and uncommitted nature of their contact creates uncertainty about their intentions.
If a person gives you a lot of mixed signals, their contact is sporadic, and they avoid talking about the future, it is possible you are being breadcrumbed.
Expanding on this, signs of breadcrumbing could include the following:
Their Communication Style
- Their communication is inconsistent
- Communication is on their terms – they decide when there is contact and often do not respond even when they have contacted you first
- They flirt with you but do not ask you out or make any other commitments
- The conversation is often shallow e.g. they send GIFs and ask how you are but avoid talking about anything meaningful
- They text you late at night (a.k.a. “booty calling”) and make plans spontaneously (usually for sex) but afterward, you do not hear from them for a while
- Mixed signals e.g. they tell you they like you but then say they are not looking for commitment because of school, work, etc.
- They are in contact a lot for a short period of time and then grow distant suddenly
- They avoid talking about their feelings and the future
- When it comes to meeting up in person or making any other arrangements, they are unreliable and flakey
- You feel confused about where you stand and unsure of their intentions
- Your feelings fluctuate between excitement and dejection depending on your interaction with them
Why Do People Breadcrumb?
People breadcrumb for various reasons but the underlying motivation is to receive attention from others to boost their self-esteem.
Important to remember is that being breadcrumbed is not your fault – it has to do with the breadcrumber’s personality, emotions, and self-esteem. Here are more details:
Breadcrumbers are often people who base their self-esteem on receiving attention from others. Fragile self-esteem leads people to feel worthless when they are not getting attention and interest from others.
Being alone might terrify them but, depending on their personality style, commitment may feel equally frightening to them. Therefore they give others just enough attention to keep them interested but without ever committing fully.
They want to know that they are liked and attractive so they keep their victims in “standby mode” for whenever they need a boost to their self-esteem.
The breadcrumber might be emotionally closed off and therefore avoid commitment, close relationships, and conversations about feelings. Emotional avoidance is often a result of an insecure attachment style.
The relationships we have with our caregivers in childhood form our attachment style, which then influences how we build relationships and feel about ourselves in adulthood.
Children who develop an avoidant attachment style often have parents with an authoritarian (extremely strict) style of parenting, and/ or were ridiculed or punished for emotional displays.
As a result, avoidant individuals usually have shallow and temporary relationships and avoid emotional intimacy and closeness in adulthood. Breadcrumbing might therefore be related to emotional avoidance stemming from an insecure attachment style.
Breadcrumbing has been associated with a narcissistic or egocentric personality style. This personality style is characterized by a lack of empathy, a sense of entitlement for the unconditional attention and admiration of others, and an excessive need for control.
Thus, for these individuals, breadcrumbing serves the purpose of getting attention and feeling in control of the feelings of others. They want attention without commitment as a way to keep their options open and do this without considering the feelings of other people.
In sum, breadcrumbing is likely a result of a combination of these aforementioned factors: fragile self-esteem that is based on receiving attention from others in combination with emotional avoidance and narcissistic personality traits.
How Breadcrumbing Impacts You
Breadcrumbing has the potential to have a negative impact on your well-being and self-esteem. The inconsistent communication might leave you feeling confused or unsure of whether you have done something wrong.
You might believe that their behavior is somehow your fault or that you are not desirable enough, which can damage your self-esteem. The mixed signals and unreliability can cause psychological distress and leave you feeling sad, rejected, and/ or angry.
One study investigating the consequences of breadcrumbing found that it reduced victims’ satisfaction with life and made them feel helpless and lonely.
The empirical research into the effects of breadcrumbing is limited but the existing evidence shows that it is a damaging and disorienting experience for victims.
Speaking from personal experience, journalist Samantha Swantek explained “breadcrumbing can be especially infuriating if you’re in search of a genuine connection.
Breadcrumbers waste your time and introduce a sense of falsehood into a rapport that you may have conceived as real”
Researchers have also compared the consequences of breadcrumbing to those of being ostracized i.e. being ignored by an individual or group in the context of relationships. Ostracism (in real life or on the Internet) is related to:
- Loss of self-esteem and meaning in life
- Feeling out of control
It is likely that breadcrumbing affects victims in a similar way as the waiting, uncertainty, and lack of responses can feel like being ostracized.
Dealing with Breadcrumbing
Breadcrumbing behavior can be difficult to deal with psychologically and emotionally. It can make you feel helpless; as though someone else has control over your thoughts and feelings.
You might start to believe that there is something “wrong” with you and that the breadcrumber’s behavior is your fault.
Therefore, to deal with breadcrumbing, understand the nature of breadcrumbing and realize that is not your fault so that you can take back control. Here is more advice on dealing with breadcrumbing:
Do Not Take It Personally
As mentioned above, breadcrumbing is not the victim’s fault but is caused by the breadcrumber’s personality style, fragile self-esteem, and emotional unavailability. It is their strategy for getting their needs met without having to commit to one person.
That is why you need to stop putting your time and energy into trying to work out their intentions or trying to win them over – it is not about you, it is about them.
Be Honest With Yourself
If a person likes you, they are usually clear about it and do not leave you wondering. Furthermore, a person who drifts in and out of your life and seems to call all the shots likely does not respect you or your feelings. So be honest with yourself: why you are tolerating the inconsistent communication, the mixed messages, and the avoidant behavior?
Decide whether they are really a person worth pursuing or whether there is some deeper process happening within you that is allowing them to treat you in this way (for example, a belief that you are not worthy of love).
Set and Maintain Boundaries
Taking back control means establishing firm boundaries. Figure out what your needs are, what behaviors you will not tolerate of someone else, and how you will deal with someone violating your boundaries.
Communicate your boundaries and expectations to the person you suspect of breadcrumbing you.
If they respect your boundaries and adapt their behavior accordingly, a future with them might be possible. If they do not respect your boundaries and continue the breadcrumbing behavior, stay strong and do what you said you would do if they violate your boundaries (e.g. stop all contact).
Call Them Out on Their Behavior
When you are faced with breadcrumbing behavior, call the breadcrumber out on it. Tell them you are aware of what they are doing and let them know how it makes you feel.
Their response will tell you a lot about their personality and whether or not they are intentionally breadcrumbing you or not. If it is intentional, it is unlikely that they will change their behavior.
If the interactions with this person are impacting you negatively, it is best to walk away. Look for someone who is not frightened of being vulnerable and emotionally available, but communicates clearly how they feel.
Breadcrumbers are satisfying their own needs, so you should do the same and prioritize your well-being.
How to Respond to Breadcrumbing via Text
Although breadcrumbing can occur online and offline, it is most commonly experienced via social media and other digital communication apps (e.g. WhatsApp).
For that reason, you will likely need to deal with breadcrumbing digitally, and here is how:
- If they “booty call” you and you are not interested in this, only reply and text them during the day
- Ask them to meet you at a time that suits you
- If they do not show up or constantly reschedule, maintain your boundaries e.g. stop interacting with them or tell them to contact you when they are serious about meeting up
- Do not shy away from asking them whether or not they are looking for a relationship and if they do, what kind of relationship they want (e.g. committed or non-committed)
- Think about what you want and communicate that clearly to them
- If you do not think it will work, let them know assertively and stop interacting with them
Frequently Asked Questions
What Happens When You Ignore a Breadcrumber?
A breadcrumber wants your attention and to know that you will be there when they contact you. If you ignore them, they may worry that they have lost a source of attention and “ego-boosting”.
That means they might contact you more often as a way to win you back, shower you with compliments, and make promises for the future. Once they feel you are back under their control, the breadcrumbing behavior will likely resume. However, depending on the breadcrumber’s personality, they might stop contacting you altogether if you ignore them.
Is Breadcrumbing Emotional Abuse?
Breadcrumbing, like ghosting and other forms of digital dating violence, is a form of emotional abuse. The victim is treated without respect or consideration for their feelings, which undermines the victim’s self-worth and confidence.
It is a form of manipulation that benefits the perpetrator and damages the victim: the perpetrator receives the attention and control they desire while the victim suffers the emotional and psychological consequences. Thus, it is emotionally abusive behavior.
What Is the Difference Between Breadcrumbing and Gaslighting?
Breadcrumbing essentially means being led on by someone through sporadic communication and flirtation but without wanting commitment. Gaslighting is making someone doubt their perception and sense of reality. Although they are distinct, both behaviors are manipulative and potentially damaging.
However, the perpetrators of breadcrumbing are likely to be perpetrators of gaslighting as these can both be driven by a narcissistic, egocentric personality and emotional problems. Furthermore, the former may lead to the latter.
For example, they flirt with you without wanting to move the relationship forward (breadcrumbing) but when you confront them about it, they deny ever flirting with you (gaslighting).
Do Narcissists Breadcrumb?
Not everyone who breadcrumbs is a narcissist and not all narcissists breadcrumb. But it is a behavior that has been linked to a narcissistic personality style.
Narcissists demand excessive amounts of attention and want to be adored by all. They lack empathy and they will stop at nothing to have their self-serving interests met.
It is also common for narcissists to have a “harem”, a group of individuals who serve the purpose of feeding the narcissist’s ego.
For the narcissist, breadcrumbing might be a way to get attention from various sources whenever they need a boost. It is also a way for a narcissist to feel like they have power over other people.
Navarro, R., Larrañaga, E., Yubero, S. & Víllora, B. (2020). Psychological Correlates of Ghosting and Breadcrumbing Experiences: A Preliminary Study among Adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), 1116.
Navarro, Raúl & Larrañaga, Elisa & Yubero, Santiago & Villora, Beatriz. (2021). Ghosting and breadcrumbing: prevalence and association with online dating behavior among young adults. Escritos de Psicología / Psychological Writings, 13(2), 46
Rodríguez-García, M.C., Márquez-Hernández, V.V., Granados-Gámez, G., Aguilera-Manrique, G., Martínez-Puertas, H. & Gutiérrez-Puertas, L. (2020). Development and Validation of Breadcrumbing in Affective-Sexual Relationships (BREAD-ASR) Questionnaire: Introducing a New Online Dating Perpetration. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health; 17(24), 9548.