August 24, 2023

How To Identify and Address Breadcrumbing

This toxic behavior uses the principle of intermittent reinforcement to keep you invested

Person on smartphone reading texts, but not really engaging with other person.

Every once in a while, a pop culture term does such a good job describing a problematic human behavior that it becomes part of our collective vocabulary. It happened with ghosting. It happened with love bombing. It happened with trauma dumping.

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And it’s happening again. This time, the term in question is “breadcrumbing.” It’s evocative, easy to understand and — while it’s not a clinical term — it’s helping everyday people describe their feelings and experiences in mental health settings.

We talked to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, about the concept of breadcrumbing. She explains why this term resonates with so many people, why people do it and how to address breadcrumbing when it happens in your relationships.

What is breadcrumbing?

For people growing up in the Western world, the concept of a trail of breadcrumbs is associated with the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. In the story, the children use breadcrumbs as a way to mark a path through the woods — a way to ensure they can always get home.

Today, a trail of breadcrumbs can be benevolent or malevolent. Sometimes, the crudely made path leads you home, like it does in the story. But sometimes (like in breadcrumbing), it lures you deeper into the woods, gets you lost or leads you into a trap.

“Breadcrumbing is when you give an individual just enough morsels of attention to keep them interested or hooked into the relationship (or situationship), without any intention of really committing,” Dr. Albers explains. Essentially, it’s a tactic used to string somebody along.

While most frequently used in a romantic context, breadcrumbing can happen in any relationship. In the workplace, Dr. Albers says “it might look like a boss giving you some praise or giving you the promise that maybe you’ll be promoted. You hang in there because the possibility is on the horizon. And then, it never happens.” It can also look like a flakey friend, a manipulative family member or — in the case of online dating — a person you’ve never actually met.

“What’s interesting about breadcrumbing,” Dr. Albers notes, “is that it works on the principle of intermittent reinforcement, which is a principle in psychology that describes an addictive cycle.”

Gambling is a great example of intermittent reinforcement. “If you’re putting quarters into a slot machine and nothing comes out, you’ll quickly stop,” Dr. Albers illustrates, “but if you win every once in a while, you’re more likely to keep playing.”

Breadcrumbers create a system of intermittent reinforcement through their actions: Long periods of disengagement punctuated by a flirty text here, a call there, maybe even a date. But nothing ever progresses.

“Breadcrumbing creates a mixture of hope and disappointment,” Dr. Albers notes. “There’s the hope that the individual is going to become engaged in the relationship. And then, there’s disappointment when things don’t continue.”

What breadcrumbing feels like

If you’re being breadcrumbed, you can expect to experience several of these feelings:

  • Confusion.
  • Anger.
  • Self-doubt.
  • Anxiety.
  • Sadness.
  • Loneliness.
  • Inadequacy.
  • Embarrassment.
  • Hope.
  • Self-consciousness.

Who is susceptible to breadcrumbing?

There probably aren’t very many people who don’t know what it feels like to be breadcrumbed. It happens to everybody sometimes. But some people are more likely to be breadcrumbed — or to follow the trail for longer — than others.

Certain kinds of childhood trauma can make the hope and disappointment cycle of breadcrumbing familiar, or even comfortable, to some people. If you grew up receiving inconsistent attention from your parents or caregivers, for example, you might be used to this kind of treatment.

People who are living with substance use disorder, or who have a “addictive personality” are also particularly susceptible to breadcrumbing, Dr. Albers says, because the highs and lows you experience in a relationship with a breadcrumber create an addictive cycle of their own.

She also notes that people with low self-esteem or certain mental health issues — like depression, anxiety or eating disorders — can be more vulnerable to this kind of emotional manipulation.

What are the signs of breadcrumbing?

The rollercoaster cycle of expectation and frustration that comes with breadcrumbing can leave you feeling confused, let down and hurt. But when it comes to relationships, big emotions aren’t hard to come by. So, how do you know when you’re being breadcrumbed?

Dr. Albers considers the following as breadcrumbing red flags:

Their communication is sporadic or superficial

Different breadcrumbers will handle communication differently, but none of them will be reliable.

They may take weeks to respond to a text. They may spend hours talking to you, but only once in a blue moon. They may shower you with flattery, then go radio silent for months.

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Maybe they’re consistent communicators, but the content of your conversations with them are similarly noncommittal. Take note if they’re asking a lot of questions, but not volunteering much information about themselves of their lives. They could also stay strictly focused on the physical, avoiding topics that require them to be vulnerable or emotional.

They only communicate in certain ways

Social media is a breadcrumber’s paradise because, as Dr. Albers puts it, “Engagement takes very little effort.” You don’t even need to use words to send a mixed message! Liking the right post or picture or sending the right emoji takes less than a second, but it can prompt some serious overthinking on the breadcrumbee’s part.

They don’t commit to future plans

Take a look at the conversations you’re having.

“With breadcrumbers,” Dr. Albers explains, “There’s very little talk of what we’re doing next week, or where is this relationship going? Everything is very in the moment.”

And if you do try to nail something down, expect them to stall, dissemble or make excuses.

Their actions don’t match their words

They may talk a good game every once in a while, but a breadcrumber’s going to lack follow through.

Maybe they flake out on a date at the last minute. Maybe they send a racy text or two, but never actually initiate a physical relationship. Maybe they always seem happy to see you, but don’t go to the effort of seeking you out. In one way or another, their actions will leave you either questioning their interest in you, or trying to justify their inconsistency.

How to handle breadcrumbing

Changing or extricating yourself from a breadcrumbing situation can be quite difficult, but it is possible. Dr. Albers recommends doing these five things:

1. Identify and label the behavior

With breadcrumbing, Dr. Albers says knowing is half the battle.

“Many of my clients have an aha moment, when they realize that this is what’s happening — that the individual is keeping them hooked in without really giving them any kind of substance or commitment. Being able to identify and label that behavior is important.”

2. Connect with a counselor

Given the addictive nature of breadcrumbing situations, they can be hard to recognize and even harder to address. And you may find yourself seeking that same emotional rollercoaster over and over again.

“Connecting with a counselor is very helpful for understanding your patterns and your relationships,” Dr. Albers says.

3. Do some journaling

Journaling is a great way to organize your thoughts and feelings about a breadcrumbing situation. Dr. Albers suggests making a list of the things that you want (and don’t want) out of your relationship.

“Journaling will also help you create some boundaries,” she adds.

4. Confront the breadcrumber

Once you’ve labeled the process, it’s time to have an honest, direct conversation with the person that’s breadcrumbing you.

“Tell the individual that it seems like they’re leading you on and not really committing to the relationship,” Dr. Albers recommends. After all, it’s possible that the breadcrumber isn’t aware of the behavior or doesn’t understand that their actions are hurtful.

Having an honest conversation about how their actions make you feel gives them the opportunity to make changes — if not in your relationship, in future ones.

5. If necessary, end the relationship

How does being breadcrumbed make you feel? Rejected? Manipulated? Embarrassed? Lonely? Are you twisting yourself in knots trying to justify their behavior, or holding out hope that they’ll eventually change? Is this a healthy relationship?

Do you feel like the relationship — be it friendly, romantic, professional or familial — is meeting your needs? Are you missing out on other opportunities because you’re invested in a breadcrumber?

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Weigh your answers to those questions against what you’re actually getting from the relationship — not what you hope to get eventually. Is it enough to outweigh the impact their behavior has on you?

If the answers are “no,” it’s probably time to do the hard work of breaking the cycle of intermittent reinforcement and ending the relationship.

Why do people breadcrumb?

Breadcrumbing is … well … a really crummy way to treat somebody. So, why do people do it? And are they doing it on purpose?

As with so many questions about why humans are the way they are, the answer’s a bit squishy. It depends on the person.

“For some, it’s a narcissistic behavior,” Dr. Albers concedes. “They do it to have control over and get attention from you.” In those cases, breadcrumbing is an intentional act.

For others, Dr. Albers says, it’s a sign of an avoidant or insecure attachment style. “It may be that they have difficulty committing to a relationship,” she notes.

It could also be a result of low self-esteem. Consciously or unconsciously, they may be keeping you on the hook because your interest is a sort of validation — it makes them feel better about themselves.

So, the answer isn’t straightforward. A breadcrumber may or may not know that their actions are harmful. Or they may or may not care. That’s why, Dr. Albers stresses, “Communication — identifying where the behavior’s coming from — is crucial.”

How to stop breadcrumbing others

So far, we’ve focused on the person being breadcrumbed. But what if you’re the breadcrumber? What do you do if people you care about have pointed this behavior out to you?

“It may not be an awareness that you have yourself, if you have a narcissisticpersonality,” Dr. Albers notes. “But if people in your life have repeatedly pointed out this pattern, then it’s an important time to take a pause and look at it more closely.”

The next step? “You have to make a choice,” she says. “Decide whether you are going to address the behavior or not — and have some empathy for what it may feel like to be the person on the other side.”

If you’re ready to make a change, Dr. Albers suggests getting some counseling. It’s important to take time to reflect, to understand why you are reluctant to commit — or why you feel you need attention from the other individual.

You don’t deserve crummy behavior

Being breadcrumbed is no fun and can really damage your self-concept and self-esteem. Changing or getting out of the relationship is important, but it’s equally important to reflect on yourself.

“Try to identify why are you accepting so little attention and effort from the other individual,” Dr. Albers advises. Being in a breadcrumbing situation could be a sign that you need to work on your self-esteem or sense of self-worth in relationships.

“Consider making a list of what you want and deserve,” she urges. “It can be really simple things, like consistent responses to text messages.” It’s a start, anyway.

Just keep crumbs off the list!

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