What is Breadcrumbing?

Breadcrumbing is a term commonly used in the context of modern dating and relationships. It refers to a behavior in which one person sends intermittent and often vague messages to keep another person interested or engaged, without any intention of fully committing or entering into a relationship.

A man reading messages on his phone

Breadcrumbers will give someone just enough attention or communication to maintain their interest, but will not make any substantial effort to move the relationship forward.

They are usually not interested in commitment, but rather enjoy the attention and acknowledgment of another.

Similar to leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to lead someone on a path, breadcrumbers string others along with sporadic and vague communication, whether through text messages, social media interactions, and face-to-face contact.

This behavior can lead to frustration, confusion, and disappointment for the person who is being “breadcrumbed” as they are left with a false sense of hope for a future relationship.

It is not uncommon for individuals to experience some uneasiness and confusion at the beginning of a new relationship. The initial stages of a relationship can be marked by a variety of emotions, uncertainties, and mixed signals.

However, while some degree of uneasiness and confusion is normal at the beginning of a relationship, it’s important for both partners to communicate openly and honestly to address any misunderstandings or concerns.

If the uncertainty and unpredictability persist and are causing significant distress, this could be a sign of breadcrumbing.

Signs of Breadcrumbing

Breadcrumbing is considered to be an inconsiderate and emotionally manipulative behavior. Breadcrumbing toys with the emotions of another person and prevents them from moving on to healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

Signs of breadcrumbing in a relationship can include various behaviors that indicate someone is keeping you on the back burner or stringing you along without genuine intentions of commitment.

Inconsistent Communication Style

  • They might send occasional messages but without any consistent pattern or effort to maintain regular contact.
  • Communication is on their terms. They decide when they want to reach out and often do not respond even when they have contacted you first.
  • Conversation is often light and surface-level (e.g. they avoid discussing the future of the relationship, your feelings, or any serious topics).
  • They text you late at night (sometimes referred to as “booty calling”) and make last-minute plans (usually for sex), but afterward, they do not contact you.
  • They oscillate between showing interest and being distant or disengaged.
  • They send flirtatious or affectionate messages that give the impression of interest, but they don’t follow through with any concrete action.

Avoidant Behavior

  • They tell you they like you but that they are not looking for a committed relationship.
  • When you make plans or suggest meeting up, they often respond with vague or non-committal responses (e.g., “we’ll see” or “maybe another day”).
  • They flirt with you online or through text, but they avoid in-person interactions and real-life commitments.
  • They often claim to be busy and unavailable, making it difficult to make plans or spend quality time together.
  • They are unreliable and flakey when you try to make plans.
  • You notice that they are active on dating apps, suggesting that they might be exploring other options.

Your Feelings

  • They disregard your emotional needs, concerns, or requests for clarity.
  • You feel confused about where the relationship stands and unsure of their intentions.
  • They might deflect or change the subject when you try to have a serious conversation.
  • Your feelings fluctuate between excitement and dejection, depending on your interaction with them.
  • They will give compliments one day and then ignore you the next, leaving you feeling unsure about their true feelings.

Why Do People Breadcrumb?

People engage in breadcrumbing for a variety of reasons. While motivations can vary from person to person, the underlying motive tends to be to receive attention from others to boost their self-esteem. 

It is important to note that breadcrumbing is considered an insensitive and hurtful behavior. It is not the victim’s fault, but rather has to do with the personality, ego, and self-esteem of the breadcrumbed.

Here are some common reasons why someone might engage in breadcrumbing:

Fragile Self-Esteem

Breadcrumbers tend to base their self-esteem on the validation they receive from others. Individuals with fragile self-esteem often feel worthless and unlovable when they do not get enough attention and recognition.

While they might be terrified of being alone, commitment may feel equally frightening. Therefore, they will give others just enough attention to keep them interested without committing to a relationship.

They want to feel desired and wanted, so they keep their victims in “standby mode” for whenever they need a boost to their self-esteem.

Emotional Avoidance

Breadcrumbing can be a way to avoid uncomfortable conversations or confrontations about one’s true feelings or intentions.

Breadcrumbers who are emotionally closed off will avoid commitment, close relationships, and deep conversations. Emotional avoidance is often a result of an insecure attachment style

Attachment theory proposes that the quality of the relationships we have with our caregivers in childhood plays a significant role in shaping our emotional and social development throughout our lives. This influences how we perceive ourselves, others, and how we navigate relationships.

Children who develop an avoidant attachment style often had caregivers who were distant, neglectful, or emotionally unavailable. 

As a result, individuals with this style often have conflicting desires for closeness and distance in their relationships, avoiding emotional intimacy and attachment in adulthood.

Therefore, breadcrumbing behavior might be the result of having an insecure attachment style.


Breadcrumbing is known to be associated with a narcissistic or egocentric personality style. This personality style is characterized by a lack of empathy, a sense of entitlement for the unconditional attention and admiration of others, and an excessive need for control. 

Thus, for these individuals, breadcrumbing can provide a sense of validation, affirmation, and control. As narcissists tend to lack empathy, they may not realize how breadcrumbing can lead to confusion, frustration, and emotional distress for the person on the receiving end.

Instead, they live in peaceful ignorance as they enjoy the attention and interest they receive from others.

Some other reasons why someone might engage in breadcrumbing include:

  • Fear of commitment
  • Filling a temporary emotional void
  • Keeping their options open while maintaining connections with multiple people
  • Uncertainty or indecision about their own feelings or desires
  • External pressures, societal norms, or peer influences
  • Personal traumas / emotional baggage

How Breadcrumbing Impacts You

Breadcrumbing can be hurtful and damaging to the emotions and self-esteem of the person being strung along. It can lead to a range of emotional and psychological effects, causing distress and affecting their overall well-being.

The inconsistent communication and vague behavior can lead to feelings of confusion, frustration, and anxiety. You might start to question your own desirability and whether their behavior is somehow your fault.

Breadcrumbing can also intensify feelings of insecurity and self-doubt as you are unsure of where you stand in the relationship.

A 2020 study on the psychological correlations of ghosting and breadcrumbing experiences found that breadcrumbing reduced victims’ life satisfaction and increased their feelings of helplessness and loneliness. 

While the empirical research into the effects of breadcrumbing is limited, the existing evidence shows that it is a damaging and disorienting experience for victims.

Speaking from personal experience, journalist Samantha Swantek explained, “breadcrumbing can be especially infuriating if you’re in search of a genuine connection. 

Breadcrumbers waste your time and introduce a sense of falsehood into a rapport that you may have conceived as real.”

Researchers have also compared the consequences of breadcrumbing to those of being ostracized. Ostracism is correlated with:

  • Increased loneliness, sadness, and anxiety
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Questioning the meaning in life
  • Feeling out of control

It’s crucial for individuals who are experiencing breadcrumbing to recognize the harmful effects it can have and take steps to prioritize their own well-being.

Dealing with Breadcrumbing

Dealing with breadcrumbing behavior can be challenging, both psychologically and emotionally. It can leave you feeling helpless and as though someone else has control over your thoughts and feelings.

You might start to believe that there is something wrong with you and that the breadcrumber’s behavior is your fault.

However, there are steps you can take to protect your emotional well-being and make informed decisions about the relationship. First, you must understand the nature of breadcrumbing and recognize that your feelings are valid.

Here is some advice on how to handle breadcrumbing:

Do Not Take It Personally

Breadcrumbing is not the victim’s fault. The behavior is a result of the breadcrumbers’ personality style, fragile self-esteem, and emotional unavailability.

You need to recognize the inconsistent communication and mixed signals for what they are and stop putting your time and energy into trying to make the relationship work.

Trust Your Instincts

If you feel that something is off or that the relationship isn’t progressing as it should, trust your instincts. If a person likes you, they are usually clear about it and will not leave you wondering.

Additionally, a person who drifts in and out of your life without acknowledging your feelings likely does not respect you or want a real relationship. So be honest with yourself: why you are tolerating inconsistent communication, mixed messages, and avoidant behavior? 

Decide whether this person is worth pursuing or whether there is a deeper reason why you are allowing them to treat you in this way.

Set and Maintain Boundaries

Taking back control means establishing firm boundaries for yourself. Determine what you’re comfortable with in terms of communication, commitment, and the level of effort you’re willing to invest.

Communicate your boundaries and expectations firmly.  

If they are able to respect your boundaries and adapt their behavior accordingly, a future relationship might be possible. However, if they are unable to respect your boundaries and the breadcrumbing persists, it may be necessary to consider ending the relationship.

Communicate Openly

Have an honest conversation with the other person about your feelings and concerns. When you are faced with breadcrumbing behavior, call the breadcrumber out. Express how their behavior is affecting you and ask for clarity about their intentions.

Their response can provide valuable insights. If their behavior is intentional, it is unlikely that they will change.

Focus on Self-Care

Prioritize self-care and emotional well-being. Engage in activities that bring you joy, spend time with supportive friends and family, and engage in hobbies that boost your confidence and sense of self.

Take time to reflect on your own needs and desires in a relationship. If breadcrumbing continues despite your efforts to communicate and set boundaries, consider limiting your contact with the person or walking away.

Remember that your emotional well-being is important, and you have the right to be in a relationship where you feel valued and respected.

How to Respond to Breadcrumbing via Text

Responding to breadcrumbing via text requires careful consideration, as your response can set the tone for the future of the relationship.

Set Boundaries

  • Only reply and text them during the day. Do not engage with their efforts to “booty call” you.
  • Ask them to meet you on a day and time that suits you.
  • If they do not show up or are constantly rescheduling, maintain your boundaries (e.g. stop interacting with them or tell them to contact you when they are serious about meeting up).

Communicate Clearly

  • Directly ask them whether or not they are looking for a relationship and what kind of relationship they want (e.g. committed or non-committed).
  • Keep your responses calm, respectful, and composed. Avoid using accusatory or confrontational language, as this might escalate the situation.
  • Think about what you want and communicate that clearly to them.
  • Make it clear that you deserve honesty and respect in your interactions. If you do not think they are capable of this, let them know assertively and stop interacting with them.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Happens When You Ignore a Breadcrumber?

In some cases, the breadcrumber might notice your lack of response and decide to increase their efforts to regain your attention. They might send more frequent messages, be more attentive, or even try to initiate deeper conversations.

On the other hand, if the person is not genuinely interested in a deeper connection and was only breadcrumbing for their own reasons, they might gradually lose interest and disengage when they realize their tactics aren’t working.

The type of response depends on the individual and the specific dynamics of the relationship.

Is Breadcrumbing Emotional Abuse?

Breadcrumbing, like ghosting and other forms of digital dating violence, can be considered a form of emotional abuse, depending on the specific context, intentions, and the overall impact on the victim.

Emotional abuse generally involves a pattern of behaviors that undermine a person’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and emotional well-being.

While breadcrumbing can share a number of similarities with emotional abuse, it may not always meet all of the criteria. Either way, it is still a hurtful and inconsiderate behavior that can lead to emotional pain and confusion.

What Is the Difference Between Breadcrumbing and Gaslighting?

Breadcrumbing and gaslighting are both harmful behaviors in relationships, but they involve different tactics and have distinct effects on the victim.

Breadcrumbing involves sending sporadic and vague messages to keep someone’s interest without any intention of genuine commitment or progression in the relationship.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation where one person seeks to undermine the victim’s perception of reality, causing them to doubt their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Although these behaviors are distinct in their definition, they are both manipulative, harmful, and can have lasting effects on the victim’s emotional well-being.

Perpetrators of breadcrumbing can also be perpetrators of gaslighting as these behaviors are both driven by narcissistic, egocentric intentions. 

Do Narcissists Breadcrumb?

Yes, narcissists can engage in breadcrumbing as part of their manipulative and self-centered behaviors. But, not everyone who breadcrumbs is a narcissist and not all narcissists breadcrumb.

Breadcrumbing aligns with certain traits commonly associated with narcissistic individuals, such as seeking attention, validation, and control over others.

Narcissists may use breadcrumbing to garner attention from others and maintain a sense of power and control in relationships.


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 Health, 17(3), 1116.

Navarro, Raúl & Larrañaga, Elisa & Yubero, Santiago & Villora, Beatriz. (2021). Ghosting and breadcrumbing: prevalence and association with online dating behavior among young adults. Escritos de Psicología / Psychological Writings, 13(2), 46

Rodríguez-García, M.C., Márquez-Hernández, V.V., Granados-Gámez, G., Aguilera-Manrique, G., Martínez-Puertas, H. & Gutiérrez-Puertas, L. (2020). Development and Validation of Breadcrumbing in Affective-Sexual Relationships (BREAD-ASR) Questionnaire: Introducing a New Online Dating Perpetration. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health; 17(24), 9548.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Julia Simkus

BA (Hons) Psychology, Princeton University

Editor at Simply Psychology

Julia Simkus is a graduate of Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She is currently studying for a Master's Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness in September 2023. Julia's research has been published in peer reviewed journals.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Writer

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.