Australian travel writer Julia D’Orazio was confused when her ex-boyfriend kept messaging her, despite being in a serious relationship with a girlfriend he planned on marrying.
She began to feel like “that sucker on the receiving end,” she wrote, “leaping for joy when I hear from my love interest via text, only for that excitement to wane rapidly with each lazy reply, or worse, no reply coming at all.”
Tired of the false hope, she told him to stop contacting her. And she learned that there’s a word for what happened: breadcrumbing.
What is breadcrumbing?
Breadcrumbing is the practice of having intermittent communication with a previous or potential love interest. Perhaps your ex-boyfriend texts you one day, then never responds to your immediate reply. Days later, he likes your Instagram post or comments on your Facebook status. Then after three weeks of silence, he calls for a long and intimate chat.
The term is a reference to the breadcrumb path that Hansel leaves in the classic fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” These sporadic signs of love interest are like crumbs left on the trail, leading you to follow one after another.
“It’s really leading somebody on, because the recipient of the flirtatious text message is going to assume the person is interested,” said Julie Spira, online dating expert and founder of Cyber Dating Expert.
Breadcrumbing often happens in the wake of “ghosting,” when a love interest suddenly stops communicating without explanation. After a while, that person may resurface in your communication channels, reaching out in little ways without acknowledging the long silence.
Why do people breadcrumb?
The reasons why may vary, but breadcrumbers ultimately don’t want to commit to the relationship.
“It’s really lazy,” Spira said. “Some do it because they’re noncommittal and don’t want to meet you, and others do it because they want to have casual sex. They put very little effort out, and if the person on the other end jumps and wants to sleep with them, then they’re fine with it. That’s the problem with breadcrumbing. Either way you slice it, it’s a commitment-phobe problem.”
On a deeper psychological level, the breadcrumber enjoys communicating without commitment. “It may be somebody who’s not ready for a relationship but they still like that warm fuzzy feeling of getting a text message,” Spira said. “They do it because they’re focused on work, or dating multiple people, or because they really have their eyes on someone else, or because they have a relationship that they don’t tell you about.”
The result is a confusing tangle of mixed messages and hopes raised—then quickly dashed.
What it means to be breadcrumbed
There are many signs that you’re being breadcrumbed, most of which end with you feeling frustrated that the person doesn’t seem more forthcoming. Here are a few things to look out for when communicating with someone who doesn’t seem entirely all-in on your relationship:
- Inconsistent communication: The person sends messages at random intervals, sometimes responding right away and sometimes never responding at all. Sometimes the communication seems robust and normal, as you’d expect from someone you have a real relationship with, and other times it is sparse and cursory, as if the person hardly knows you.
- “Microcommunicating”: The person uses social media to keep in touch in little bits, but they aren’t willing to have a real conversation of any substance. The person may be a pro at liking your Instagram images and commenting on all your Facebook posts, but they only write back to your texts, DMs or emails with short responses, if at all.
- Online-only: The person may communicate with you in a friendly and easy way online but never respond to your texts or phone calls. Their comments on your social channels may be voluminous and regular, but send a text and all you get back is crickets.
- Flirtatious, noncommittal messages: The person seems to be interested and sends messages that seem romantic, but they won’t agree to get together. You may receive messages like “thinking about you” or “let’s get together sometime!” But when you say, “OK, let’s meet up. When?” the conversation suddenly dies.
- Last-minute hookups only: The person may resist making plans to meet up, except if it’s a last-minute spontaneous plan that will involve a sexual encounter. The person’s motivation for breadcrumbing in this scenario is most likely to keep you around as a convenient hookup partner.
Related: Modern Dating Terms
What to do if you are being breadcrumbed
Be explicit that you don’t want your breadcrumber to communicate with you anymore. Don’t beat around the bush; say it clearly and directly so they know exactly what you’re asking.
“If you find yourself communicating and pulling teeth like you’re in a dentist’s office just to get a date on the calendar to meet for coffee, then say, ‘This isn’t working,’” Spira said. “You have to call someone out on it and say, ‘If you can’t put a date on the calendar, this isn’t working.’”
If they keep contacting you, then you have a potential concern about the person’s boundaries and respectfulness—as well as documentation of your request in case the situation escalates.
If you have a sketchy or bad feeling about the breadcrumber—or simply don’t know them that well—find out more using a trusted people search tool, which may include information such as marital status and social media presence.
“If breadcrumbed, a high-value and empowered dater would gently and firmly let the person know what it takes to earn a place in your life,” said Jasbina Ahluwalia, relationship expert and founder of Intersections Match. “If they don’t demonstrate willingness to do so, I would move on. If the breadcrumber makes any threats, I would print the threats out and take them to authorities ASAP.”