What Is Breadcrumbing In Dating and Relationships?

Find out what "breadcrumbing" someone refers to and how to spot the behavior, according to mental health professionals.

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Spotting red flags in a relationship can be tricky, as can keeping up with all their nicknames, from benching to cushioning. One term you'll definitely want to add to your vocab? Breadcrumbing.

Put simply, breadcrumbing is stringing someone along. It typically happens in romantic relationships, in which it can pertain to the amount of attention, time, communication, and affection between partners, explains Therese Mascardo, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Exploring Therapy. Ahead, learn more about breadcrumbing, its impacts, and how to identify the behavior.

What Is Breadcrumbing In Dating and Relationships?

"Breadcrumbing is the non-clinical term for an emotional manipulation tactic that involves one individual periodically giving another individual a small amount of what they want without giving them everything they want to keep them engaged in the relationship," says Mascardo. The breadcrumber leads the other person on by acting generally inconsistent or dishonest about their intentions.

Instead of building and investing in a genuine relationship, the manipulator gives their partner just enough attention, time, or gifts (i.e. "breadcrumbs") to foster the illusion of interest, explains Carla Marie Manly, Psy.D., a California-based clinical psychologist. (

From a behavioral standpoint, breadcrumbing is a form of intermittent reinforcement, which is the delivery of a reward at variable intervals to keep someone coming back for more, says Mascardo. "An example of intermittent reinforcement is gambling," she explains. "When a person pulls the handle on a slot machine, they may only win one out of every 10 times. Since they never know for certain when they will win, they're compelled to keep trying because they expect a reward at any moment."

The manipulator is giving their partner just enough random "rewards" to keep them coming back. This puts the manipulator in control of the relationship and allows them to engage with their partner on their (the manipulator's) own terms.

Sometimes people engage in breadcrumbing because they have a low self-worth, says Manly. "Although breadcrumbers may appear confident, their behaviors reflect their low sense of self-worth and lack of respect for others." They may want to take control of the situation in order to boost their self-esteem.

Those who lead others on may also do so as result of unhealthy attachments or previous trauma. "If [the manipulator] experienced unhealthy relationships growing up, it's also more likely they will [continue] dysfunctional dynamics, like breadcrumbing," says Mascardo.

What Does Breadcrumbing Someone Involve?

"One common example of breadcrumbing is the habit of sending text messages that hint of romantic connection only to pull back after one or two exchanges," explains Manly. For example, someone texts you to set up a date, but then "ghosts" you (never responds again). Another example, they may only text you when they want something or late at night for sex — more colloquially known as a "booty call," even though you've expressed you want something other than a friends with benefits situation, explains Mascardo.

"Breadcrumbing can also occur through gift giving," says Manly. "Whether sending a surprise bouquet of roses, an unexpected box of chocolates or showing up with a bottle of wine, the breadcrumber can use gifts as a means to feign a sense of true interest." (

It's also possible to leave breadcrumbs in a non-romantic relationship. "A boss keeps giving their employee the promise of improved working conditions or greater pay to keep them hanging onto the job instead of leaving and looking for better options," shares Mascardo as an example.

What Are the Impacts of Breadcrumbing?

When someone breadcrumbs you, you might not pick up on it at first. "When you're emotionally manipulated, it's difficult to gain the perspective needed to see that how [you're] being treated isn't okay," says Mascardo.

"The victim of breadcrumbing naturally feels confused," says Manly. "As time passes and the behavior becomes more obvious, the confusion can turn into sadness or anger. Sadly, those who are taken advantage of by breadcrumbers may suffer from a bout of low self-esteem. It's common for the victim of breadcrumber to feel 'stupid' for not seeing the true nature of the behavior sooner."

In some cases, a victim of breadcrumbing may also form an unhealthy dependency and make attempts to prove their worth as they wait for the next crumb of affection. "Breadcrumbing typically results in a person staying in an undesirable relationship or circumstance for far longer than they would if they didn't receive occasional moments of positive reinforcement," says Mascardo. (

How to Deal with Breadcrumbing

Since it can be difficult to decipher whether you're being led on by someone else, it can be helpful to lean on your support system if you suspect someone is breadcrumbing you. Talk to friends or a mental health professional who can give you an outsider's perspective on the behaviors, advises Mascardo

Another way to gain clarity on the situation is through journaling. "Once you [suspect] breadcrumbing is occurring, take a step back to journal about the behavior in a thoughtful, non-judgmental way," says Manly. "Reflect on the behaviors and how they made you feel. Journaling will help you gain clarity and objectivity about the situation."

Once you've realized you're being led on, it's time to set healthy boundaries. If you feel safe doing so, you can do this by directly addressing the breadcrumber and asking them for consistency, says Manly. "For example, you might say, 'I feel very disappointed about our interactions. I realize now that you've been breadcrumbing me. I deserve to be treated with respect.'" Doing this may open a dialogue between you and the breadcrumber that can either make them acknowledge and change their behaviors or help you realize it's best to end the relationship altogether. If you choose to do the latter, you can try saying something like, "I don't have space in my life for toxic, manipulative behaviors. I'm moving forward with my life, so please don't bother reaching out to me in the future," says Manly.

If you don't feel comfortable addressing the situation directly, you can try taking some space from the manipulator, and engaging less frequently with them. For instance, if they text you asking to hang out, you can deny their request as a way to set a boundary and give a hint that you aren't someone that they can take advantage of. "Sometimes, just reducing your exposure to the breadcrumbing behavior can help to reduce its power over you," says Mascardo.

Ideally, you'll avoid getting deeply involved with breadcrumbers in the first place. You can do that by watching for red flags and the things you don't want in your relationship. "In many cases, red flags pop up but are disregarded out of the desire to have a connection," says Manly. If you find that you want to spend time with the person more than they want to with you or that they're super friendly one day and cold and distant another day, take note. "Paying close attention to red flags and then openly talking about any concerns with the person you are dating is the best way to encourage healthy dating interactions," says Manly.

When watching out for breadcrumbing, let the cliché "talk is cheap" guide you, says Mascardo. "What the other person isn't saying or doing is just as important as what they are saying," she says. "Always measure a person's actions over their words."

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