Lady sitting looking at phone

How to spot breadcrumbing & how to avoid it

As our lives become more and more entangled with our digital personas, it makes sense that a whole new world of online social behaviour is cropping up. Over the past few years, we’ve cycled through the dating concepts of ghosting, catfishing and benching, while dealing with roaching and email phishing in the workplace. But there’s a new contender on the rise and it applies to every social domain, from the illusive world of dating to friendships and careers. It’s called breadcrumbing and it’s everywhere.

When someone breadcrumbs you, they string you along by feigning interest in you — whether as a romantic partner, future employee or close friend. They’ll drop small crumbs of attention in the form of an email, date idea or social media interaction without committing to you or your plans. This tantalising trail keeps you hot on the heels of the breadcrumber, even though they have no intention of maintaining a real relationship with you. In other words, a breadcrumber is all talk, no action.

Have you ever swiped right on a dating profile and found yourself in a flirtatious conversation that leads … nowhere? Days of drafting witty replies, scrolling through their pictures and tossing around hopeful date ideas can often end with an uncertain sizzle instead of that putt-putt golf stand-off you were promised — only to hear from your match again weeks later, without any explanation for their sudden disappearance. Katie O’Donoghue, relationship coach at The Indigo Project, explains that this behaviour is widespread and normalised in online dating.

“Thanks to technology, people have access to a new person at the swipe of a finger, and so it’s almost too easy to keep multiple people interested at the one time, which might be their reason for breadcrumbing you,” she explains.

“Unfortunately, breadcrumbing doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. It’s important to understand that things only become problematic when the behaviours don’t shift towards moving forward or improving the relationship. Having said that, healthy communication and understanding your own patterns of relating can be key for managing or avoiding breadcrumbing,” O’Donoghue says.

So what are the signs to look out for? On the dating scene, for example, matches might keep their messages superficial and generic. You won’t catch a breadcrumber revealing intimate details about themselves or asking probing questions in a bid to get to know you. Instead, a breadcrumber will imply that they’d love to meet in person while ignoring your requests to make concrete plans.

Breadcrumbing friends, on the other hand, might mention shared experiences and memories to reinforce a sense of connection, without making any efforts to catch up IRL. Over in the employment ring, your uncommitted boss or interviewer might keep you looking to the future with vague statements like “Let’s pencil that in,” rather than setting a specific meeting time. “It won’t always be easy to spot, or to avoid a potential breadcrumber from the initial interaction,” O’Donoghue warns.

These artful performances are not only inconvenient and time-wasting, but they can also be psychologically damaging to the person on the receiving end.

“A lot of the time, this type of social behaviour can make someone question themselves, their judgement, their abilities, their lovability or their worthiness too,” says O’Donoghue. “Sometimes, the breadcrumber’s behaviour can even rise to the level of psychological or emotional abuse — and that’s why it is important to seek support if you have any doubts about the way that someone is treating you.”

When 52-year-old Michelle Egan* came to the realisation that she was being breadcrumbed by a childhood friend, she felt as though she was “being used” and experienced a deep loneliness. “Over the course of our friendship, I gradually noticed that this friend only contacted me when she needed something, such as a favour, a recipe or advice on an issue at work. Aside from these brief phone calls, she would take weeks to reply to a message or simply ignore my texts altogether,” Egan says. “I wasted so much time being upset about the state of our friendship. But,” she adds, “I don’t think her behaviour was intentional.”

There is an array of explanations for why people succumb to the harmful act of breadcrumbing. People who breadcrumb are often “emotionally unavailable, confused about what they want or have never learned how to have a healthy relationship with another,” O’Donoghue explains. “Sometimes people can also end up doing it for an ego boost — they want to feel desired and popular, and this can be due to their own low self-worth or lack of self-love. They simply need people around them to validate or prove to themselves that they are desirable.”

In other cases, such as with financial planner Ruby Williams*, a breadcrumber might see you as their backup plan. When the 26-year-old applied for a position with a firm in late 2020, she didn’t expect the application process to draw out for three months. “The interviewer kept jumping into my inbox with updates on my application, keeping my hopes high without ever letting me know when I’d hear about a job offer,” Williams says. “Eventually, I gave up and applied for another firm. I got the job within weeks.”

While Williams had the strength and foresight to cut ties with an exciting career opportunity, it can be challenging to give up on the prospect of a new job, friendship or romantic partner. When you’re being breadcrumbed, you often feel a rush of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that influences your mood and conjures feelings of reward and motivation. Dopamine increases your appetite for more of whatever stimulus gave you the reward to begin with, such as a text from a friend or a heart reaction from a potential date.

“When you first start dating someone, you feel a flood of feel-good chemicals that cause you to be blissfully in lust,” explains O’Donoghue, stating that another side effect of breadcrumbing is that it can trigger addictive behaviours. “You might feel exhilarated, have obsessive thoughts or even butterflies — this is a mating drive in a part of the reward system in your brain.

“In these cases, the reward comes from the breadcrumber,” O’Donoghue adds. “And it might be something as simple as a one-line text or a ‘like’ on a social post. So if you’re wondering why you are scrolling over their socials, or waiting for a text to come through, it could be because your dopamine cravings are giving you motivation to act in a way that will get you more of whatever it is that you need.” The big question is, how can you avoid falling into the trap?

When you find yourself struggling to sustain someone’s attention, time or love, take a step back and review your relationship. If they’re exhibiting signs of breadcrumbing, then stand up for yourself and initiate an open and honest conversation. Get specific about a date and time for a work-related meeting, or if a friend is taking advantage of you, call them out on their behaviour. But rather than simply pinning the blame elsewhere, it’s also important to turn inwards and uncover what has enabled you to accept this kind of hurtful treatment.

“We all need to take responsibility for our choices in life, and by doing this you can take your power back from those who try to control, abuse or disempower you,” says O’Donoghue. “That isn’t to excuse or to justify their behaviours, because there is no excuse for being abusive or manipulative toward another person.”

When dealing with a breadcrumber, remember to always put yourself first. After all, you deserve so much more than a couple of unsatisfying crumbs … you deserve the whole cake.

4 tips for navigating breadcrumers

  1. Call it out by name and communicate that it is not a healthy way of relating. If you wish for the relationship to continue, communicate what you need moving forward for the relationship to be of a healthy nature and for everyone to be equally respected. Working on your boundaries will be key here regardless of your choice moving forward.
  2. Remember that it is never your fault for being breadcrumbed and it is OK to cut ties if you need to. Cultural norms and social media can all enable people to behave in a way that is both disrespectful and dysfunctional. This does not mean that you must accept such behaviours. Having self-awareness, self-trust and a healthy sense of self-worth will put you in a better position for avoiding this type of social behaviour.
  3. Understand why you attract breadcrumbers into your life. What patterns of relating have enabled you to accept that behaviour from them? Suffice it to say that you need to understand why you attract those people and situations into your life in order to avoid it. To do that, it’ll be necessary for you to understand your “wiring” in order to “rewire” yourself and your relationships.
  4. Reflect on what traits and values you desire in a relationship. Writing out a list of desirable traits and values in relationships will help you to get clear on what relationships are a “Yes” and a “No” for you. Looking at the people who you already love having in your life and seeing what traits and values they have can be a good starting point for this exercise.

What are the telltale signs of breadcrumbing?

  • Suggest that they’d love to see you but ignore your attempts to set an actual time and place.
  • Won’t reply to your messages for several weeks, before sending a series of texts without explaining why they suddenly stopped responding.
  • Communicate primarily with generic comments, photos, memes or emojis.
  • Keep you looking to the future with vague plans and statements like “Let’s catch up soon”.
  • Create conversations that are superficial and non-specific to avoid revealing or learning personal details.
  • View, like or comment on your social media posts, while still ignoring messages you’ve sent.

When someone breadcrumbs you, they string you along by feigning interest in you — whether as a romantic partner, future employee or close friend.

Kayla Wratten

Kayla Wratten

Kayla Wratten is a Brisbane-based journalist. When her head isn’t stuck in a good book, you’ll find her on the yoga mat, in a dance class or writing inspiring stories. Find her on Instagram at @kaylawratten.

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