What Is Breadcrumbing? Experts Explain How to Recognize This Manipulative Dating Tactic

Plus, what to do once you realize it's happening to you.

There’s something about dating that makes the whole experience stressful. You’re supposed to meet someone you like, go on a couple of dates, flirt with them, and cross your fingers that they might be the one—or at least the one for right now—all while living your life? Then once you get the swing of things, someone might decide to throw a wrench into your dating life by leading you on—aka the dating term otherwise known as breadcrumbing.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly, breadcrumbing is defined as “a negative dating behavior that involves repeatedly tossing out just enough tidbits of interest to keep another person interested and involved.” This means that the breadcrumber doesn’t have a true interest in the person they’re “seeing” and is only using the relationship to gain a superficial connection and attention from them. Dr. Manly says this is a very selfish behavior, as “the breadcrumber does not want the other person going elsewhere; instead, they use manipulative tactics—throwing out little crumbs of interest now and again—to keep the other person engaged.” Yikes.

But why is this breadcrumbing dating behavior a thing to begin with? According to Dr. Manly, some people breadcrumb out of a fear of being alone, to gain attention or out of thoughtless boredom. However, she also explains that—wait for it—highly toxic people consciously do this “to exert power and control over people who have strong feelings for them.” Clinical psychologist Dr. Kim Chronister says, however, that people might do this because they want to keep their options open, or they’re “maybe either indifferent, already in a relationship, or simply not interested enough for anything other than casual and minimal contact,” Dr. Manly further explains that either way, all of those reasons are selfish and manipulative to some degree, whether they’re done highly conscious, purposeful, or relatively unconscious.

If you’re starting to panic at the thought that your dating partner might be breadcrumbing you, but you’re not 100 percent sure, don’t fret. We connected with experts to tell us the signs you’re being breadcrumbed and how to stop it in its tracks so you don’t waste your time anymore.

Signs you’re being breadcrumbed:

They rarely follow through.

Breadcrumbers are very good at leaving you hanging. They might begin having a conversation or setting up another date, but nothing ever comes from it. “This person starts a conversation with you in a very general way like, ‘How’s your day going’ and then you don’t get a response for another day or two when they ask you again, ‘How’s your day going?’ They always provide generic questions with long pauses and no forward momentum in the conversation,” psychotherapist and certified life coach Tess Brigham tells HelloGiggles.

They give you short answers.

One clear indicator that someone is breadcrumbing you is that they keep their answers short and to a minimum. “[They give] minimal effort by saying ‘hey’, simply messaging or replying [with] one emoji, or [giving] compliments here and there on social media or text,” says Dr. Chronister. However, keep in mind that they might finally hold a conversation with you when they wait for you to initiate contact. Either way, the communication “can be random, minimal, or simply shallow in nature,” she explains.

There’s no consistent interest about your life.

Are you constantly finding yourself in conversations with this person who only talks about your life on very seldom occasions? Dr. Manly says this is a sign of breadcrumbing. “A breadcrumber might toss out a bit of attention here and there, but they will not be consistently interested in you or your life,” she says. Simply put, they are using you to gain attention or to keep you around for their benefit.

They constantly change how they reach out to you.

Because breadcrumbers are never consistent in their forms of communication and simply don’t care too much about what’s going on in your life, you may find that they use various forms of communication to just have small talks with you because they don’t care to keep up. “Maybe you texted this other person for a while and then maybe went on a few dates and now they are reaching out and commenting on your Instagram posts,” says Brigham. But if you have each other’s numbers, “Why are they now reaching out weeks later but on Instagram?” she asks.

They never spend quality time with you.

You know you have a breadcrumber on your hands when you have to ask them to spend time with you. The truth is, if someone is truly interested in hanging out with you, they will make the effort to do so. This means it’s nearly impossible for a healthy relationship to grow between the both of you because you may constantly feel like you have to beg for their attention—and who has the time for that? “A breadcrumber will generally leave you feeling off-balance, disconnected, and unimportant,” Dr. Manly says.

When they do contact you, they never explain their absence.

One of the easiest ways to tell that you are potentially seeing someone who is breadcrumbing you is if they reach out to you after a long-time of not communicating, but don’t explain why they stop contacting you in the first place. “If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘I haven’t heard from this person in weeks but now they’re texting me and liking all posts but not acknowledging anything,’ that doesn’t make sense,” says Brigham. “It doesn’t make sense as to why someone drops off the face of the earth and they aren’t being direct about reappearing in your life. If that doesn’t make sense to you, then how do you now trust what they have to say.”

How to respond to breadcrumbing:

If you find yourself in a situation where someone is breadcrumbing you, you can do a few things. According to Dr. Manly, you can discuss your feelings openly and honestly with the breadcrumber. However, if they get defensive when you do this, stick to your truth and don’t back down. “Request that you be treated in ways that show you are a priority and that you are valued; be as specific as possible,” she says. If things continue, disengage from them and “focus your energy on building relationships with people who demonstrate kind, thoughtful behavior,” she adds.

Dr. Chronister suggests not responding to every insignificant form of communication, like a simple “hey” or “how you been” text. “Only you know the dynamic between you two so ask yourself if you feel your time is being respected and whether or not you are valued by them. Ask yourself if it is worth it to you to have a casual relationship with this person,” she says. If you feel the relationship is not a good use of your time or you feel you are being taken for granted, you can let them know what you’re looking for, like Dr. Manly previously suggested. “People will value you more when you hold high standards for how you want to be treated,” she says. “They may be irritated by your standards at first, but it is our job to teach others how to treat us and if they don’t, we have the choice to let it go and free up space for others.”

On the other hand, Brigham says not to engage at all. “You don’t owe this person anything. Breadcrumbs only work if you follow them to see where they lead. Don’t follow,” she explains. “Be sad and disappointed that things didn’t work out with this person but realize the sooner you stop responding or thinking this person is someone worth your time and energy, the sooner you’ll be able to focus on someone who will want to spend consistent time with you.” Amen to that.

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