If a new partner shows interest but it feels like you’re getting nowhere, you could be experiencing breadcrumbing

Catfishing, ghosting, love-bombing, cuffing … There’s plenty going on in the world of modern dating to keep us on our toes. But have you heard about breadcrumbing?

“In a relationship context, breadcrumbing refers to a person who gives you just enough ‘crumbs’ of attention or affection to give you hope and keep you on the hook — but not enough to make you feel comfortable or assured the relationship is going well,” explains Dr. Gemma Harris, a clinical psychologist based in Bermuda.

If you’ve experienced this phenomenon, you’re not alone: Research from 2021 indicates around 30% of dating adults have been breadcrumbed in the last 12 months.

But are some more susceptible than others? Harris notes that “we’re all potentially vulnerable,” but “some people might be more attracted to, and more likely to stay with, someone who is liable to breadcrumbing.”

For instance, individuals with low self-esteem or high empathy levels “may be prone to normalizing breadcrumbing behavior,” she explains. Harris also reveals that this type of pressure-free relationship can appeal to those more afraid of commitment.

In addition, individuals who have a dependent attachment style are at greater risk as they’re “resistant to setting boundaries,” she states, and they “may also be more likely to romanticize a relationship, and exaggerate the worth of the breadcrumbs.”

Possessing these traits doesn’t mean you deserve to be strung along or treated poorly.

Signs of breadcrumbing

Actions can occur in person or digitally (although they’re more frequently experienced virtually) and take various forms. For example:

  • They flirt repeatedly, but never ask you out.
  • They message you to say hi and offer compliments, but ignore your suggestions to meet.
  • They leave comments on your social media but don’t respond to DMs or texts.
  • They send memes and GIFs, but never engage in a proper conversation.
  • They’ll say, “let’s go for a coffee,” but never follow through to set a date or place.
  • They suddenly show more interest as soon as you start to back off.

There’s no one-size-fits-all explanation as to a definitive breadcrumbing meaning. However, several factors may come into play.

Low self-esteem

Breadcrumbing can help establish a sense of power and control — something those with low self-esteem might be lacking in other areas of their life. Leaving a trail of crumbs and seeing you coming back for more can also make them feel wanted and worthy.

Insecure attachment style

“Those with avoidant or disorganized attachment are prone to a form of breadcrumbing, but theirs is generally viewed as less manipulative or intentional,” Harris explains. In fact, it’s likely done as a method of self-defense. “When they deliver breadcrumbs, it is often because they are withdrawing from intimacy or intensity that has left them feeling vulnerable,” she notes.

Emotional unavailability due to a mental health condition

The individual may have a mental health concern, such as narcissistic personality disorder — which drives them to engage in breadcrumbing behaviors and relationship ‘games’.

These tactics make those with narcissistic tendencies feel powerful and special, reveals Harris, and provides them with the attention they crave.

They might be small, but these crumbs can be mighty confusing and hurtful. There are steps you can take to avoid being burned.

How to respond to someone breadcrumbing you

Although sometimes easier said than done, you need to talk it out. This will help you establish whether the individual is “maliciously wasting your time,” says Harris, or if “this is a phase that might be managed better with some open communication.”

So what’s the best way to go about it? “Try to engage them in an open dialogue, to gauge their level of insight and understanding into their behavior,” Harris recommends. “Collaborative change is more likely if they are able to recognize and own these patterns.”

Still getting nowhere? It might be time to show them the door.

How to avoid being breadcrumbed

Getting caught up in the heady early days of a new romance often makes it tricky to notice warning signs. However, according to Harris, the following steps could help prevent you from succumbing to those crumbs:

  • Set boundaries and stick to them.
  • Acknowledge when you repeatedly hit brick walls.
  • Recognize that you deserve to be treated well.
  • Be aware of patterns of negative breadcrumb-like behaviors.
  • Maintain your social activities, so you’re not dependent on the breadcrumber.
  • Don’t bury your head in the sand if you think you’re being breadcrumbed.

Tips to handle being breadcrumbed

According to a 2020 study, people who experience breadcrumbing are more likely to report feelings of loneliness, lower life satisfaction and helplessness.

So the first step to picking yourself back up is to “be careful and compassionate with yourself not to take things personally or feel to blame,” shares Harris.

Breadcrumbing behaviors are often combined with gaslighting — thus, walking away can make it feel like you’ve ditched something incredible.

To help you remember the reality, “it might be useful to write a list of the disappointments and rejections,” Harris suggests.

If your self-esteem has taken a hit, write down all the good things about yourself that the breadcrumber has missed out on. Great sense of humor? Fantastic in the kitchen? It’s their loss.

Breadcrumbing — when someone leads you on with no real intention of developing a relationship — can be hurtful and confusing to those on the receiving end.

Various factors can cause someone to engage in breadcrumbing behaviors, such as low self-esteem and personality disorders.

Meanwhile, those with high levels of empathy and a dependent attachment style may find themselves more at risk of succumbing to a breadcrumber’s tactics.

Several approaches can be taken if you’re being breadcrumbed, but the most important factor is recognizing that you’ve done nothing wrong and it’s not your fault.

Harris G. (2022). Personal interview.

Navarro R, et al. (2020). Ghosting and breadcrumbing: Prevalence and association with online dating behavior among young adults. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/351083776_Ghosting_and_breadcrumbing_prevalence_and_association_with_online_dating_behavior_among_young_adults

Navarro R, et al. (2020). Psychological Correlates of Ghosting and Breadcrumbing Experiences: A Preliminary Study among Adults. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/3/1116