Breadcrumbing refers to when a person sends another individual vague and intermittent messages with no intention of entering or committing to a relationship.

With the rise of online dating, dating apps, and social media, breadcrumbing has become a common form of manipulation within the dating world.

Breadcrumbing, also known as “Hansel and Gretelling,” refers to the act of leaving breadcrumbs behind in order for someone to find what they are looking for, like in the children’s story.

This article explains breadcrumbing and the signs of it. It also explores why people do it, how it compares to gaslighting, and how to respond to breadcrumbing.

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The term breadcrumbing comes from the noun “breadcrumbs,” which refers to small dried pieces of bread. In the dating world, it refers to the act of messages that are flirtatious but noncommittal (breadcrumbs) in order to attract a sexual partner without expending much effort.

A person may also use this in order to gain the attention they seek without any intention of taking things further or entering a relationship.

The act of breadcrumbing can occur in various ways. This may include:

  • occasional and intermittent texts or messages
  • expressions of interest that in no way lead to a commitment
  • infrequent plans that never materialize into reality
  • occasional post likes on social media just enough to keep the other person interested

Breadcrumbing keeps an individual just enough on the periphery and offers them just enough attention in order to prevent them from fully moving on.

Learn about how social media affects relationships.

A study from 2021 on Spanish adults between the ages of 18 to 40 years old found that 30% of participants had experienced or initiated breadcrumbing within the past year.

The signs of breadcrumbing may vary. However, they can include:

  • avoidant behavior, such as:
    • flirting online but avoiding in-person meetings
    • not committing to a relationship
    • being vague when making plans
  • communication styles that are intermittent, for example:
    • occasional messages without a consistent pattern
    • surface-level conversations that do not involve discussion of serious topics or feelings
    • changing between showing interest and being disengaged or distant
  • avoiding feelings, such as:
    • disregarding the emotional needs or concerns of the other person
    • leaving the other person feeling confused or unsure of their intentions
    • changing the subject if the conversation becomes serious
    • giving compliments one day and ignoring the other person the next day

There as been limited research on breadcrumbing and the reasons behind it. However, the research that has been completed showed a few different reasons a person may breadcrumb someone else.

An individual may participate in breadcrumbing for the following reasons:

  • attention seeking
  • fear of being lonely
  • insecurity
  • low self-esteem
  • need for emotional support
  • need for power or dominance
  • keeping their options open

Breadcrumbing has also been associated with narcissistic and egocentric personalities.

Learn about narcissistic personality disorder.

The effects of breadcrumbing

Experiencing breadcrumbing can have varying effects on a person’s mental health and well-being. It can also affect their future relationships.

The effects of breadcrumbing can include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • feelings of helplessness
  • feelings of loneliness and emptiness
  • insecurity
  • difficulty with commitment in future relationships
  • self-doubt and self-blame
  • feelings of frustration and jealousy
  • self-deprecating thoughts or low self-esteem

Some people may also experience physical effects due to breadcrumbing, such as:

  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss or weight gain
  • sleep issues
  • exhaustion
  • skin issues, including discoloration or redness and acne
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For some, breadcrumbing may sound a lot like gaslighting. While they are similar in some ways, they are two separate issues that can affect relationships.

Breadcrumbing is a way of leading someone on. Gaslighting is an act of deliberately attempting to blur a person’s concept of reality, causing them to question their own preceptions and judgments.

small but inconsistent supply of interest to keep a person feeling as though there may be potential for something moreactively trying to make someone question their own perceptions of reality
causes a person to question whether the individual is truly interested in themconvinces a person that their thoughts are wrong and leads to the erosion of their confidence and ability to make clear judgments
Examples include:
•occasional post likes on social media
•intermittent texts or messages
•flirtatious online conversations
Examples include:
•questioning the other person’s memory
•disregarding their feelings
•faking confusion to make the other person doubt themselves

Learn more about gaslighting.

Breadcrumbing can be difficult to cope with. However, there are ways a person can respond to it that can help minimize the effects and help the individual to move on from the relationship.

Ways to respond to breadcrumbing include:

  • clearly communicating how their actions make one feel
  • only responding to messages that are sent at a time that is convenient
  • reminding oneself that they are worth more than begging the other person for crumbs of attention
  • setting clear boundaries for communications and meetings, and if they do not meet these to stop interacting with them or tell them to come back when they are ready to be serious about communication
  • initiating a conversation about the expectations of a relationship
  • communicating wants and thoughts clearly
  • seeking professional help if the effects of breadcrumbing affect daily life

If a person can become aware of the patterns of breadcrumbing and acknowledge that they deserve more, it can help prevent them from experiencing the behavior in the future.

Mental health resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and resources on mental health and well-being.

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Breadcrumbing is an act of sending someone messages or giving them just enough attention to keep them interested.

There are various reasons why a person may engage in breadcrumbing. These typically include seeking attention, insecurity, and a desire for power or dominance.

Breadcrumbing has become more common with online dating, dating apps, and social media. A person can respond to breadcrumbing by setting boundaries and sticking to them, as well as communicating their wants, needs, and feelings clearly.