"Breadcrumbing" Is a Toxic Dating Trend on the Rise—How to Spot It in Your Relationship
Therapists say there are a few key things you need to consider and look out for.
We all know the modern dating scene can be tricky—to say the very least. You have to navigate dating apps, actually find someone you're interested in, and then determine if there's real potential. Making things even more complicated are an endless array of toxic traits and behaviors, many of which you might not realize you're dealing with if you're not paying close attention. While you've heard of "ghosting" and "catfishing," the toxic dating trend on the rise in 2024 is "breadcrumbing."
"Breadcrumbing involves intermittent attention or affection that leaves the victim continuing to hold onto the hope of something more. The breadcrumber is able to maintain the victim's focus while simultaneously avoiding investment or commitment," Beth Ribarsky, PhD, professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Illinois Springfield, tells Best Life.
As Courtney Hubscher, LMHC, LCPC, NCC, of GroundWork Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, puts it, breadcrumbing involves leaving figurative "crumbs" indicating interested, without ever fully committing.
"Breadcrumbing is often a result of a fear of commitment and the desire to keep their options open," Hubscher says. "It's also a way for some people to boost their own ego or fill a void in their life without having to fully invest in a relationship."
So, if you're part of the dating scene, you'll want to know if you're inadvertently involved with a "breadcrumber." Read on to discover how you can spot this trend in your relationship.
Pay attention if they make vague plans.
When someone you're dating makes a plan, it should be official, with a set time and place. But if someone is breadcrumbing, they'll leave a bit of a gray area.
"If the person you're dating is constantly making vague plans with you, such as 'let's hang out sometime,' or, 'we should do something together,' but never actually follows through, it could be a sign of breadcrumbing," Hubscher says. "This behavior shows that they are not fully committed to spending quality time with you and are just keeping you on the back burner."
Ribarsky notes that a breadcrumber will also "flirt and talk about plans," but don't end up following through.
Take note of how they communicate
We all want to "play it cool" at the beginning of a relationship, limiting communication so as not to appear "overeager." But a breadcrumber is going to play this up and leave you guessing, Susan Trotter, PhD, relationship coach and expert, tells Best Life.
"The person doing the breadcrumbing may alternate between sending out frequent messages to draw you in and then slow it down, with only occasional messages, taking a long time to respond to your messages, and/or keeping communication on a surface level," Trotter says. "Essentially, they vacillate between showing interest and being disengaged via their communication with you."
But while some breadcrumbers alternate between fast and slow replies, others may consistently take a while to get back to you.
"The person may take hours or even days to respond to your messages, but when they do, it's usually with short and vague replies," Hubscher says. "They may also go MIA for long periods of time without any explanation."
Recognize if they're being "hot and cold."
Similar to inconsistent communication, someone who is breadcrumbing will go back and forth between appearing very interested and not interested at all.
"Breadcrumbing will leave the victim yearning for another dose of affection," Ribarsky says. "But it feels like the moment the relationship is feeling comfortable, the breadcrumber pushes away. So, it is a continual dose of hot/cold."
Making things more complicated, if you're facing a cold front and are ready to call it quits, that's typically when you can expect "a glimmer of hope through a small dose of affection," Ribarsky warns.
"The victim continues to be sucked back into the hope of something better," she says. "Breadcrumbing ultimately leaves the victim feeling anxious, sad, and confused as they continually don't know where they stand in the relationship and if/when another dose of affection might come."
Hubscher notes that a breadcrumber might also make plans for the future but then "suddenly disappear" without explanation.
"This can leave you feeling confused and unsure about where you stand with them," she says.
Know that psychology may play a part.
According to therapists, it's important to consider your partner's attachment style—that is, how they interact in relationships—as that can impact their likelihood to breadcrumb.
"Individuals with an avoidant attachment style are more likely to be breadcrumbers as they prefer to keep people at a distance," Ribarksy says.
People with an avoidant attachment style struggle with close relationships due to their independence, per Medical News Today.
Assess your feelings and note if something doesn't feel right.
It's important to check in with your own feelings if you worry that you're a victim of breadcrumbing. If you find that you're yearning for a deeper connection, but your needs aren't being met, you might want to reevaluate your relationship.
"The breadcrumber is able to maintain the victim's focus while simultaneously avoiding investment or commitment," Ribarsky says. "Although we often think of it as a nefarious, intentional act, breadcrumbers might not even be aware of their behavior and its detrimental effects on the victim and the relationship."
If you constantly feel like you're chasing your partner, it's an even clearer sign.
"Ultimately there is a power dynamic at hand," Ribarsky notes. "The victim's feeling of security is at the hands of the breadcrumber."
If you have an anxious attachment style and struggle to feel secure in relationships, you could also be more at risk for falling victim to breadcrumbing, she adds.
"Individuals who have low self-esteem and an anxious attachment style might be more likely to be victims as they may more easily explain away poor behaviors or romanticize an illusion of a relationship," Ribarsky says.
What should I do if I'm a victim of breadcrumbing?
Unfortunately, as Ribarsky points out, breadcrumbing is not necessarily necessarily new—it just manifests in different ways.
"Breadcrumbing has always been a factor in relationships, but it seems to be even more prevalent today as individuals might have a fear of commitment due to a troubled relational past or even seeing parents in an unhappy relationship," she says. "And, technology, such as a flirty text, has allowed individuals to more easily toss a breadcrumb to keep the victim interested."
So, if you find yourself in this position, experts say you need to take a step back and recognize your self-worth—but don't feel like you have to break things off right away.
"It may not be an easy discussion to have, but it is important to draw attention to the breadcrumber's behaviors," Ribarsky says. "They may not even realize they are doing it nor the effect it is having on the victim. Give the breadcrumber a chance to address their poor behaviors.
If you don't see a change after a conversation, it can also be helpful to set boundaries, trust your instincts, and stay active in your own life, experts say.
Trotter adds, "If you find yourself continuing in this kind of relationship, it may be beneficial to seek out the guidance of a coach or therapist to understand why you're accepting less than what you want and deserve and to work on improving your self-esteem and sense of self-worth in relationships."
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