It was while sitting on a beach with six of my oldest girlfriends that I first heard about breadcrumbing in dating and relationships. As a mum, my first thought was that it was something to do with bribing a child or pet to do something. But, while the friend who was talking does have a dog, she is currently single and doesn’t have any children so I soon realised it was something to do with dating.
She explained that breadcrumbing is when one person will engage in flirty but sporadic communication, typically via social media or WhatsApp, but then fail to commit to anything further. It sounded very frustrating to me and like hurtful behaviour, so I decided to do a bit more digging into how common it is and why people do it.
Life only seems to get busier and become more of a juggle as we get older, so dating apps for relationships have inevitably become the easiest way of getting to know new people before meeting them in real life. But, as we all know, the digital version of a person may not be a true representation of who they are in the real world. A breadcrumber might be full of compliments and seem keen on making plans but then fail to respond to you for days, or even weeks, at a time.
Anna Williamson, dating expert and relationship coach, says the term 'breadcrumbing’ comes from the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel “where ‘breadcrumbs’ have been left out in hope that someone will follow them, thinking they’re in for something entirely different to what is reality”. Needless to say, the impact of this toxic relationship behaviour can be upsetting and damaging if the person on the receiving end is sharing intimate feelings and expecting a meaningful partnership.
What are the signs of breadcrumbing in relationships?
As well as getting in touch little and often to keep you hanging on, “a lack of substance in communication” is another key sign of breadcrumbing behaviour, says Williamson, who is also the founder of the Relationship Place. “Often, conversations will be one-sided in the sense that the one who is being ‘breadcrumbed’ is asking meaningful questions and having good intentions around wanting to date that person, while the ‘breadcrumber’ is being evasive, elusive or unresponsive,” she explains.
While breadcrumbing can happen in the real world, it's likely to happen more over the phone and in any digital exchanges. Online dating expert Jessica Alderson says, "Breadcrumbing might include sporadic text messages, liking social media posts every now and then, or having brief conversations that stay at a superficial level. They might throw out a few compliments or tell someone they miss them, then not reply to messages for days."
It’s easy to see why being on the receiving end of this type of behaviour could really knock your confidence and make you feel insignificant, or like you’re being strung along. Most people would start to consider moving on at this point, but this is when the breadcrumber throws the metaphorical 'breadcrumb' to lure you back in.
“They may reach out if they are feeling lonely or need validation or pop up when you distance yourself from them or start to lose interest,” says Alderson, who also co-founded the dating app So Syncd.
But what does breadcrumbing in relationships really feel like? Here, woman&home speaks to women who’ve been breadcrumbed to reveal what it's really about and the other tell-tale signs to look for.
"I feel like every guy I date at the moment is breadcrumbing me"
Rachel, 41 and from London, tells me she has found breadcrumbing to be a typical pattern of behaviour among the men she speaks to on dating apps, and in some cases, it continues even after they’ve met face-to-face. For her breadcrumbing is: “A lot of flirting that doesn't lead to much, only interested in sex, consistently mysterious and busy, sending mixed messages and becoming more interested as you withdraw.”
It seems to be a particular issue at the moment, she tells me, and part of the problem of getting to know people online. "One guy literally just messages on the day to say 'you around?' or sends me a meme now and then as a sign of interest but nothing more. Another guy says ‘Hi, how are you? What are your plans for the week? This is something funny I saw and thought of you…’ but it’s like a message every 12 hours, so the bounce off and spontaneity isn't there.”
It's a pattern of behaviour that others describe as key to causing dating burnout, with a lack of commitment from one person and most - if not all - of the effort coming from one side of the message exchange.
Rachel says she doesn’t immediately feel resentful about being treated this way. “At the beginning, it feels okay, I actually get a bit suspicious when someone is into me too quickly.” But if things don’t change after a few dates then that’s when the alarm bells go off. “You do question yourself and why don't they like you enough? And what could you have done differently? In fact, it’s normally because they are not in a place to commit and they want all the fun stuff of a relationship i.e. the attention, the sex, the banter but none of the commitment and sacrifice and teamwork.”
"It made me feel insignificant, needy and, at times, desperate"
Annie, who is 50, says she was breadcrumbed by someone she reconnected with on social media a few years ago. At the beginning she says it was “very intense and full-on, talking and messaging multiple times a day” and they would make plans to meet. Annie says she booked time off work and organised restaurants to meet at but when the time came to see each other, he would go quiet. “Two weeks later a profuse apology. An injury at work, mental health in a bad place, he felt pressured and so on. I explained the inconvenience and cost and said all he had to do was communicate and it would not have been a problem,” she says.
Annie says this pattern went on for two years with apologies and other gestures to keep her hanging on, but she finally felt she had been let down one too many times. Reflecting on how she was treated and the red flags she went through, she says, “It has made me feel insignificant, needy and at times desperate. Massively doubting my self-worth. There's no dignity in that.”
When I ask her why she thought this man behaved this way Annie answers, “ [He was] massively unhappy in himself. Insecure and felt unworthy of being loved. Had made a mess elsewhere in his life and I was the collateral damage.”
"When I suggested meeting up suddenly he was busy"
Sarah Becker, who is 52 and from Northampton, says she was in contact with a man who was texting her intermittently. “We had a lot of jokes but when I suggested meeting up suddenly he was busy.”
Sarah says this behaviour went on for a few weeks but the man didn’t seem to have any interest in meeting up or even speaking over the phone. “It made me feel frustrated as I just wanted to meet up and talk in person and he clearly didn't, although he was happy to [speak] over text.”
Sarah says she thought he was interested in a booty call (a meet-up for sex alone) but, in reality, she was never convinced he would have gone through with it.
"The explanations seemed genuine at first but they never stopped"
While breadcrumbing is a damaging trend that's probably always been there, much like so-called 'winter coating' or 'zombieing', the total switch to tech-first dating during the Covid-19 pandemic has naturally made the situation a lot worse.
Jenny, 42, says she was breadcrumbed by a man she met on a dating app during one of the lockdowns. “We ended up chatting every day and arranged to meet after lockdown, so a month or two later. But as soon as the restrictions were lifted he kept cancelling our dates last minute with all kinds of excuses, from still being scared of Covid, to a friend who had just become a dad wanting him to come visit and take some family pictures (he was a photographer), to travelling over to Ireland to see his family. The explanations seemed genuine at first but they never stopped.”
She says she was understanding at first but soon started doubting everything he had ever told her. Even though she was frustrated, Jenny says she still agreed to the dates he kept proposing - but six months after they’d matched and started chatting, they still hadn’t met in real life.
“I told him to stop messaging me if he never intended to actually meet up - and he did,” Jenny says. She believes the man she was talking to was just looking for some “entertainment on the side” and may not have even been single.
How to deal with breadcrumbing
- Recognize it's time to move on: "You may feel like you have time invested in this ‘relationship’ and be reluctant to let it go. That's something that they are counting on. So move on and find someone who respects you, your time, and your dating goals," says confidence coach Fiona Eckersley.
- Be honest with them: This is where you need to work out your deal breakers in relationships. "Try to be assertive and clear about your needs," says Avigail Lev, a clinical psychologist based in California. "Communicate openly and honestly with the person, expressing your expectations for consistency and genuine effort in a relationship."
- Set boundaries: "Breadcrumbing is rarely done with the intent to harm someone, but it's selfish behaviour nonetheless," says Alderson. "It benefits the breadcrumber in the sense that they are prioritizing keeping someone around as an option over the other person's emotional wellbeing. That's why it's so important to set boundaries that enable you to move on if the breadcrumbing persists. The breadcrumber isn't going to do it for you.”
- Draw a line under the relationship: Once you've decided the relationship is over and that breadcrumbing is not a behaviour you want to encourage, it's time to block, unfollow, and delete. Whether that's their phone number, WhatsApp chat, Instagram or Tinder profile, draw a line under the relationship.