What Is Breadcrumbing?

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Breadcrumbing means someone leads another person on by dropping small tidbits of interest—such as social media interactions, occasional messages, or brief phone calls. These interactions are intended to suggest the person is still interested, but they occur sporadically, and there is generally no intention of following through.

Sometimes referred to as "Hansel and Gretelling," the term is derived from the idea of leaving behind a trail of breadcrumbs for someone to find what they're looking for, much like in the children's story.

Breadcrumbing has become an all-too-common form of manipulation in the dating world, especially with the rise of online and app-centric dating.

Breadcrumbing vs. Gaslighting

While it may sound a lot like gaslighting, and while they both are forms of manipulation in relationships, they are not the same thing. That said, the same personality types can perpetrate both. While breadcrumbing is, in essence, "leading someone on," gaslighting is the deliberate attempt to blur someone's concept of reality, which causes the victim to question their judgment and perceptions.

Breadcrumbing can lead to hurt feelings and sleepless nights. Still, it's not as directly manipulative as gaslighting, which alienates the victim from friends and themselves with the intent to control. Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City, explains that breadcrumbing and gaslighting "are similar in that they make the victim doubt and question their own perspective and the other person's intentions."

  • Involves a small-but-inconsistent supply of interest that keeps someone feeling as though there is the potential for more

  • Causes someone to question whether the person actually cares about them

  • Involves a person actively trying to make someone question their perception of reality

  • Its goal is to convince a person that their thoughts are wrong, which works to erode their confidence and ability to make clear judgments

Romanoff explains that both of these manipulation tactics involve using emotionally relevant information against another. They are also both tactics that people use to exert power and control in relationships.

Signs of Breadcrumbing 

While not all of these may be happening at once, breadcrumbing usually consists of some combination of these actions by the perpetrator:

  • Inability to make or commit to plans: This is a classic example of breadcrumbing. In this instance, the perpetrator, or breadcrumber, will entertain the idea of meeting up for a date activity such as a movie, dinner, or just to hang out in person, but will never pin down an exact date to do so. That said, they'll often feign enthusiasm as they suggest a later date—think of texts like, “That sounds fun! Maybe next week!" Moreover, if plans to hang out fall through, you'll notice that the breadcrumber will be vague when it comes to finding a date for a raincheck.
  • Microcommunication: This is where the act of breadcrumbing gets its name. The microcommunication is not a complete lack of association nor is it ignoring or blowing someone off. Instead, microcommunication is dropping small, exclusively digital, bits of communication or acknowledgment, sometimes as small as commenting with emojis on Instagram posts or stories. In essence, doing the bare minimum to maintain a semblance of a relationship without investing much time or effort.
  • Hot and cold flashes: The whole point of breadcrumbing is not just the sporadic communication. The small bits of communication and connection, the breadcrumbs, give the recipient the false hope of a potential relationship or greater commitment. Often these can manifest as moments of brief connection where the recipient feels seen and appreciated, followed inevitably by periods where the recipient will feel and be ignored.
  • Consider communication times: Romanoff explains that one way to spot breadcrumbing is to notice when someone is reaching out. For example, if someone is only texting late at night when they're at their loneliest and potentially only seeking a hook-up.
  • They feign thoughtfulness: This is a common tactic used to string people along. Romanoff gives the example of a breadcrumber checking in on someone's day or following up about something specific. Then, once the recipient responds, they may not message them back for days, or they may respond with an answer that is short and surface-level.
  • There's no effort to explain themselves: Even after absences, breadcrumbers typically make no effort to explain themselves or consider the recipient's feelings.

Why People Breadcrumb

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all explanation for breadcrumbing behavior. The underlying causes for each instance can be as varied as the relationships in which they occur. However, there are common rewards that breadcrumbers are probably seeking out:

  • Self-esteem: Unfortunately for the victims, the breadcrumbers may only be engaging with them to make themselves feel better. They do this by using their interactions with someone who is interested in them as a pick-me-up when they’re feeling low.
  • Validation: The breadcrumber can use the attention from their victims as a sort of currency on the dating market. The knowledge that someone is into them, even if the feelings aren’t reciprocated, can go a long way to boosting someone’s confidence.
  • Immaturity: The breadcrumber may not be ready to settle down and commit to one person. If this is the case, they might enjoy the feelings brought on by having the real potential for a relationship, but struggle with the idea of actually committing to one. Therefore, they keep the option available to themselves but never act on it in a meaningful way. In doing so, there is a failure to communicate about their availability and intentions with honesty and integrity, fearing doing so would result in fewer options.
  • Emotional discomfort: Breadcrumbers are often conflict and confrontation-averse and tend to avoid negative or stressful interactions. This includes sharing and expressing emotional interest in another person. It's important to remember that this is all a result of self-centered fears (rejection, commitment, etc).
  • Keeping in touch: This is possibly the most difficult example of breadcrumbing to identify as it often occurs post-breakup. In this case, the breadcrumber themselves might even believe that they're only checking in on a former partner. In fact, they are retaining some beneficial part of the relationship for themselves and inhibiting their former partner from moving on.
  • Narcissism: Serial breadcrumbers have been found to have personalities that are associated with elevated levels of narcissism. This can lead to them showing very little regard for the feelings of those around them, and having no remorse for others' hurt feelings. This is true even if they (and sometimes they aren't) are aware that they’re manipulating people for temporary and shallow personal gains.

Impact of Breadcrumbing

Romanoff explains that one of the darkest aspects of breadcrumbers is that they typically exert their power on people who they know have strong feelings for them. This often results in the other person suppressing their own needs in order to preserve their attachment to the breadcrumber, as unfulfilling as painful as it may be.

"Over time, it could cause people to lower their standards and learn that they must accept the bare minimum of love or attention that is provided by others," says Romanoff.

Tips to Deal With Breadcrumbing

Although it’s often present in fantasy, there is no solution like a love potion that would just get your breadcrumber to give you the attention you crave. Fortunately, though, the solutions to dealing with breadcrumbing all come from within. Romanoff shared some tips for those who are dealing with a breadcrumber.

  • Consider the alternative: If you're feeling breadcrumbed, while it can feel hard to move on, it can also be helpful to focus on the alternative. Romanoff suggests that people focus on "what could be gained by not engaging with this person and all of the energy you will preserve by not having to wonder how they really feel about you and instead find someone who makes you feel secure."
  • Be direct: Let the person know how their communication style and actions make you feel. "Let them know the impact of their behaviors and ask for what you want: to be treated like a priority and a person they value," says Romanoff.
  • Don't reinforce bad behavior: It's OK not to respond if the breadcrumber is only sending superficial texts late at night. In fact, if you continue to respond, it reinforces their behavior.
  • Teach others how to treat you: This is perhaps the most important point that Romanoff makes. She encourages people to "decide for yourself what you are willing to tolerate, and don’t accept anything less."
  • Remember your worth: Remind yourself that you don't need to beg for afterthoughts, scraps, or crumbs. You deserve focused and prioritized attention and care. As you start saying 'no' to breadcrumbing and prioritizing yourself with greater care and honoring, you will attract others who will treat you similarly in kind.

A Word From Verywell

As with all aspects of dating in the digital world, being breadcrumbed can be an incredibly difficult and heartbreaking experience. Now that you have greater awareness around how to recognize it, hopefully you can cut off or let go of a breadcrumber, and make and protect space for yourself and your needs—whether that's on your own or exploring possibilities with someone else.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Macmillan Dictionary. Definition of breadcrumbing, buzzword from macmillan dictionary.

  2. Sweet PL. The Sociology of GaslightingAmerican Sociological Review. 2019;84(5):851-875. doi:10.1177/0003122419874843

  3. Navarro R, Larrañaga E, Yubero S, Víllora B. Psychological Correlates of Ghosting and Breadcrumbing Experiences: A Preliminary Study among Adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020; 17(3):1116.

By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.