What is Breadcrumbing, and How Can You Avoid Doing It?

When your partner only offers you crumbs, confuses you, and doesn't prioritize you, you're bound to suffer. Find out what breadcrumbing is and how to deal with it.
What is Breadcrumbing, and How Can You Avoid Doing It?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 10 June, 2022

You’re probably tired of hearing new phrases and strange words that try to categorize human behavior. However, regardless of the name given to it, the truth is that breadcrumbing is a very harmful dynamic that more and more people are victims of every day. In fact, it’s likely that you yourself have suffered from it or have even practiced it with a partner.

This is a term that comes from the English word breadcrumbs. It refers to the tendency of some people to offer only emotional crumbs, leaving the other party emotionally hungry, confused, and the relationship in tatters. Does this pattern of behavior sound familiar?

What is breadcrumbing?

Breadcrumbing is a strategy used in romantic bonding that has gained momentum in recent times. In particular, it tends to take place in online relationships, through messaging applications, social networks, or dating websites, but it can be transferred to the real world.

The person who practices it tends to offer the other party the necessary attention to keep him or her hooked, but not enough for the relationship to move forward or materialize. Thus, they may appear friendly and interested at times, but then disappear, neglect the bond, or become indifferent.

Some of the behaviors associated with breadcrumbing may include the following:

  • The person “likes” the other person’s posts or photos but does not respond to their messages.
  • Some days they may seem interested and chatty, but then they go for days or even weeks without replying.
  • The person seems willing to meet in person, go on dates or make plans, but then cancels them or makes excuses.
  • The person is ambiguous and vague in her messages (whenever you propose to advance the relationship in any way, she or he responds evasively).
  • He or she avoids talking about feelings and is reluctant to clarify what’s happening between you.
  • In spite of everything, he or she doesn’t give up the bond nor does he or she break off definitively. Instead, they establish a tug-of-war dynamic, giving and taking just a little bit and leaving the other person confused and hooked.
Relación en línea que favorece el breadcrumbing,
It’s easier for this behavior to appear with messaging and dating apps.

Why do people breadcrumb?

At first glance, this strategy seems to make little sense, as it never really solidifies a true relationship. Why would someone act this way?

If they have no interest in maintaining a bond with the other, why do they offer these emotional crumbs and create false illusions? The answer to these questions is not simple, as a number of factors can play a role. The following are the most common.

Narcissistic personality traits

It’s common for breadcrumbers to exhibit certain narcissistic personality traits. They’re often overly focused on themselves, their wants and needs, and they don’t hesitate to take advantage of others to achieve their goals.

They love to be pursued and flattered and have no regard for how this dynamic may make others feel. They simply enjoy ego-boosting and the strategy allows them to do so without having to get involved.

Insecurity and need to be liked

It’s also common that behind this behavior is strong insecurity, low self-esteem, and a need for recognition. Many people don’t really want to form a relationship with another person, but need to feel desired and cared for to reaffirm their value.

In the age of “likes” and liquid love, there are those who become addicted to this external recognition and suffer when they don’t get it. Somehow, they sustain their worth in the ability to generate interest in others; thus, they may even establish this dynamic with multiple people at once and spend time each day keeping them hooked without having the desire to go further with any of them.

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A desire to have a plan B

At other times, breadcrumbing applies when one desires to have a plan B – a backup person who one knows will always be available. They may have other romantic interests, but they don’t want to give up the safety net that the victim provides. They know that there will always be someone willing to continue to offer them the attention they seek if their first choice doesn’t work out.

Emotional management difficulties and a lack of assertiveness

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that this strategy is not always applied consciously and deliberately or with the intent to harm. Sometimes, it’s simply a lack of assertiveness in which the person doesn’t know how to settle the situation, doesn’t want to hurt the other, or tries to avoid conflict and confrontation.

It’s possible that they themselves don’t know what they want and desire, and has not realized that they don’t want to go further. Then, it’s their own confusion and emotional mismanagement that leads them to involve another in this harmful situation.

Narcisista que practica el breadcrumbing.
This way of relating is typical of narcissistic personalities, who constantly seek flattery.

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Boundaries and self-esteem to avoid breadcrumbing

As you can imagine, receiving only emotional crumbs is very damaging to a person’s self-esteem and emotional well-being. When this strategy is applied to us, we may even become hooked by intermittent reinforcement to a person who doesn’t love or value us without realizing it, and can end up in a situation that won’t move forward.

Thus, we may spend months immersed in confusion, frustration, and guilt. It’s also common for the victim to feel that he/she is doing something wrong and that thi’is why the relationship is not prospering. Even so, she or he often harbors the hope that soon everything will change.

If you want to avoid falling prey to this situation, it’s essential that you work on your self-esteem. It’s often the fear of loneliness, emotional dependency, and the need to have a partner or be seen by others that leads us to accept these crumbs of love. If you know your worth and learn to give yourself what you need, you won’t give in to these unfair games.

In case you’re already immersed in a breadcrumbing dynamic, it’s important that you become aware of what’s happening and decide to set boundaries. Express what you think to the other person in an assertive way as well as what you want and need, and express your need for change.

If this change doesn’t happen, then the best decision is to leave the relationship. Don’t get caught up in the hope of what could be and focus on the objective facts to assess whether this relationship is right for you.

Of course, if you feel that this is too difficult for you or that you’re not able to say “enough,” don’t hesitate to seek professional support. This will be helpful in managing the emotions and possible grief that the loss of this person and this unhealthy relationship can trigger.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Hobbs, M., Owen, S., & Gerber, L. (2017). Liquid love? Dating apps, sex, relationships and the digital transformation of intimacy. Journal of Sociology53(2), 271-284.
  • Navarro, R., Larrañaga, E., Yubero, S., & Víllora, B. (2020). Psychological correlates of ghosting and breadcrumbing experiences: A preliminary study among adults. International journal of environmental research and public health17(3), 1116.
  • Navarro, R., Larrañaga, E., Yubero, S., & Villora, B. (2020). Ghosting y breadcrumbing: prevalencia y relaciones con los comportamientos vinculadas a las citas online entre jóvenes adultos. Escritos de Psicología (Internet)13(2), 46-59.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.