Everything You Need to Know About Breadcrumbing, Explained

It's clear that dating in the age of social media and dating apps has become increasingly tricky—especially when people play games with, ghost, and breadcrumb others left and right. If you've never heard of breadcrumbing, odds are, you’ve probably experienced it at least once or twice. It's when a person drops metaphorical "breadcrumbs" to maintain someone's interest, leading them on in an uncommitted and superficial way, explains Jenni Skyler, PhD, director of The Intimacy Institute.

Remember the old Grimm fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, where Hansel leaves breadcrumbs along the ground as a path to help him and Gretel return home? It's kinda like that, except the breadcrumbs, in this case, are hints that someone's into you, and instead of the clues leading home, they just lead to vague disinterest and lack of commitment. Fun!

Breadcrumbing might include annoying behaviors like responding to your Instagram story with fire emojis just when you thought they weren't interested, or texting you that they’re looking forward to seeing you but never actually making date plans.

In many ways, breadcrumbing has always existed, but thanks to the internet and dating apps, “it’s become more egregious,” explains Skyler. Because people can hide behind their phone screens, they can do the literal bare minimum (not even a phone call!) to maintain your attention and keep you as an option, without actually doing anything to build intimacy or a relationship with you.

So, how do you know if it's happening to you, and what should you do if it is? We asked experts for everything you need to know about breadcrumbing.

What Is Breadcrumbing?

Breadcrumbing is a way of showing inconsistent interest in someone, explains Janet Brito, PhD, founder of Sex Therapy Hawaii. “It’s quite sporadic,” says Brito. “Like you’re dropping in with positive reinforcement, then you disappear.” It usually comes in the form of texts, social media DMs, or dating app messages, and it leaves people confused, wondering if the person who's breadcrumbing is really interested in a relationship.

Not only is it inconsiderate and whiplash-y, but if you’re super into the person, their breadcrumbing might make you more inclined to wait around and see if they demonstrate any real intention to make an effort or commit, making you waste precious time in the process. Not cool!

Signs You're Being Breadcrumbed

According to Skyler, you might be experiencing breadcrumbing if your romantic interest is…

  • Responding to your Instagram Stories at random. Perhaps even with flirty messages and emojis signaling their interest, even if you haven’t heard from them all week.

  • Texting you that they miss you or want to spend more time with you. But when it comes to actually making plans, they never bother to invite you on a date.

  • After going out with them, they say they had a great time with you. But when you try to make future plans or ask them out again, they’re dodgy with their answers, and stick to texting instead of meeting IRL.

  • Being slow to text back, but still consistent. It could be as little as texting you once per week to string you along, but never more than that, even when you respond or reach out first.

  • Only going out with you if it’s super convenient for them. They might meet you for drinks at the bar right by their apartment on their night off. But if you try to make a dinner reservation long-term, it’s a no from them.

Why Do People Breadcrumb?

There’s no guaranteed reason why any one person engages in breadcrumbing because everyone is different. That said, Skyler says it might have something to do with the fact that smartphones and social media have brought about an intimacy-phobic dating culture. “There's always the feeling that there’s someone better in the next swipe,” says Skyler, so people want to keep their options open—even if they've found someone they’re genuinely interested in.

“Technology distracts and interrupts us from commitment and connection,” says Skyler. Plus, there's a false sense of intimacy that comes with talking to people online. (Chatting on apps or via text is totally fine in moderation, but it isn't a healthy replacement for IRL contact.) “Such instant gratification doesn’t lead us to invest deeply in a relationship, and so we’re left with this experience of breadcrumbing becoming more prolific,” says Skyler.

If it's happening to you, it’s important to learn how to cut it off or resolve the issue, leaving you free to move on and find someone who's genuinely excited to hang out with you. (Aka, what you deserve!)

What to Do If You’re Being Breadcrumbed

First, know this: It's okay to feel a little embarrassed if you're being breadcrumbed, says Brito. You might harbor some shame around waiting around for someone you like to make a concrete move, even if you know you deserve better. With that said, start by releasing that shame (it can literally happen to anyone!) and talking to someone you trust about the situation, suggests Brito. It can be incredibly cathartic! Talk to a friend, loved one, or current therapist, starting with something like: This person is exhibiting [insert example] behavior and it’s bothering me. From there, your confidant can give you a second opinion and talk through solutions that might work based on your specific scenario.

If you can find the courage to speak up and confront your romantic interest directly, even better, says Brito. You can say something like: I’ve been noticing that you’re only reaching out on social media, but don’t want to meet in person. Can I ask why that is? You can also let them know you want to cut off communication if they keep stringing you along. But ultimately, if you don’t feel like saying anything, that's okay too.

Instead, “focus your energy on situations and relationships where you feel fulfilled, that give you a sense of feeling like you’re seen and respected,” says Brito. Do a gut check and notice the people in your life who make you feel positive, calm, and like the effort is reciprocal, says Brito. All in all, life is too short to wait around for someone who doesn’t put in the effort and stresses you out. If they don't want to see how amazing you are, let them go and open yourself up to someone who does.

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