YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD OFghosting.” Maybe you’ve also heard about “haunting.” And these days, because dating is so great, there’s also a practice called breadcrumbing. Breadcrumbing isn’t precisely a food-related problem, but if the word conjures a vision of Hansel and Gretel and their trail of disappearing crumbs in the woods, you’re on the right track.

Here’s what to know about breadcrumbing, how to spot it, how to avoid it, and what to do if it happens to you. You might even realize you’ve done it yourself.

What is breadcrumbing?

Breadcrumbing, essentially, is when the person you like is leaving you a trail of romantic breadcrumbs that lead to nowhere.

 

According to one entry on Urban Dictionary, breadcrumbing happens “when the crush has no intentions of taking things further, but they like the attention. So they flirt here or there, send DM/texts just to keep the person interested, knowing damn well they’re staying single.”

You might be in a breadcrumbing situation if you swiped right on someone, went on a date, and texted but didn’t hear back for a few days. Then, they pop up again, you have a few great conversations, and they sink into the background. Days later, the cycle repeats.

Breadcrumbing can also happen if you’ve never met the person. They might flirt via text, but when you ask them out, they sidestep the question.

It’s as if this person knows the right time to poke you to keep your interest piqued. If this were 20 years ago, we’d simply call this behavior “leading someone on.” It can happen in a variety of relationships, including at work (think: interviewing); with friends and family; and of course, in the world of dating.

Breadcrumbing can be confusing for the person on the receiving end, says Jess Carbino, PhD., a relationship expert and former sociologist for Tinder and Bumble, based in Washington, DC.

In fact, people who’d experienced breadcrumbing, or the combined behaviors of breadcrumbing and ghosting, “reported less satisfaction with life, and more helplessness and self-perceived loneliness,” in a preliminary study of 626 adults published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020. In other words, this stuff can mess with your mental health.

Why does breadcrumbing happen?

Some people may leave a trail of crumbs on purpose. Others may not know they’re doing it. Plus, people can do it with bad intentions and without.

Examples of breadcrumbing without malice? Some people have clinically diagnosed anxiety that makes it difficult for them to handle dating. Some are inexperienced and may not know how they’re supposed to act in a budding relationship. Some have low self-esteem and may feel undeserving of your attention, says Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D., an AASECT certified sex therapist and the founder of the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy. “Every once in a while they’ll say ‘hi’ to see if you want to talk to them,” she says. “But they’re usually pretty afraid, and don’t want to put themselves out there consistently.”

Similarly, people who have just gotten out of a long-term relationship might find themselves conflicted about dating although they want to move on, Carbino says. So they may try to maintain contact without sharing their sob story, she says, which can manifest as them disappearing and reappearing.

But while Torrisi likes to believe the vast majority of people aren’t hurting others on purpose, there definitely are people who string others along for the fun of it, or people who do it to have a friend with benefits at their fingertips. Some people may even do it for the ego boost.

Theoretically, breadcrumbing can be more common in online dating and other situations where the degree of connective tissue is thin, Carbino says, because if there isn’t a certain level of social enforcement, some people can feel less pressure to act ethically. (Like if you met them at a grocery store vs. being introduced by mutual friends.)

stressed black man looking at smartphone while sitting on couch at home

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What are signs of breadcrumbing? And what can you do if you think you’re being breadcrumbed?

From busy schedules to anxiety and depression, there are various factors in people’s personal lives that can affect their communication. And some people just aren’t big texters, which can confuse those who are. So how do you know if someone is actually leading you on? Carbino shared some common signs of breadcrumbing.

Breadcrumbing can look like:

♥ A person who texts randomly or vaguely out of the blue, with no connection to what you’ve previously discussed. (They may even start to text more if you start to pull away. That said, bonding over memes can be an exception.)

♥ A person who won’t share about themselves with you, though you’ve shared with them.

♥ A person who avoids committing to go on a date with you. (They may tell you they want to go out, but then say they’re too busy.)

♥ A person who keeps canceling after you’ve made plans.

But even with these signs, figuring out the facts can be complicated. So the way to know if you’re being breadcrumbed—vs. being anxious or overthinking the situation—is to talk to the person. “The more direct we are, the more mature our confrontations are,” Torrisi says.

You can say something like, “I haven’t heard from you for a week and now we’re talking and it feels nice. But I’m confused, because you’re not being direct with me.” With a statement like that, you’re opening a door for your potentialpartner to be honest about their feelings.

But you need to be clear about your intentions, too. If you’re comfortable being a friend with benefits, then say that. But if you want a real relationship and nothing else, make that clear.

“Own your feelings and then make a request,” Torrisi says. Your request can be anything from “I want to talk over text every day” to “I want to go out once a week to see if we’re compatible.” The person might say no, or they might give it a try.

Whether the breadcrumber has malicious intent or is just unsure how to deal with dating, this kind of communication can help you figure out if a relationship with them is worth it to you.

“If you’re finding yourself more interested as they pull away, end the dynamic,” Torrisi adds. “This is not a good way to start a relationship and it’s not a good way to be in a relationship. This could result in a pattern later down the line where you’re always chasing this person to be present and that’s not fun.”

Basically, think about what you want and act accordingly. “If they’re not as in as you are, be out,” Carbino says.

Could you be the breadcrumber? Here’s how to be direct without causing drama.

Before we go, also consider that you might (even unconsciously) be the person leaving the crumbs. So if you’re dropping in and out of people’s lives with no destination in mind, please be real with yourself and them.

“Because even if you don’t like somebody, or even if you’re not ready to be in a relationship with somebody again, telling that person and being straightforward about what’s going on with you at a given moment provides clarity and certainty for everybody,” Carbino says. (You never know: If you’re not ready for a relationship, maybe they’d go along with that if given the choice.)

If you’re afraid the truth will hurt their feelings or are trying to fade out without confrontation, remember breadcrumbing can cause damage. “I would argue that it’s as hurtful if not more hurtful to continue to lead someone on than it is to be direct with somebody about how you feel,” Carbino says.

So know you can share your real thoughts in a simple and caring way, with Carbino noting you don’t have to be extensive. If you’re just not interested, she says you can text something like: “I really enjoyed getting to know you better. I don’t feel that we’re the right match. I wish you the best of luck.” In later stages of dating, you may decide to say this in a brief conversation. Either way, you can kindly give that person closure, Carbino says.

Because really, it’s better to be clear—and to treat people honorably—than to be confusing.

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Leslie Quander Wooldridge is a writer, editor, speaker, and coach whose articles have reached tens of millions of readers; find her at lesliequander.com.