Breadcrumbing is a form of manipulation. It occurs when someone pretends they are interested in pursuing or developing a sincere relationship, when in fact, they have no interest.

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Dating today often means dating online. And being able to connect with others online is certainly a benefit right now.

Still, as you cycle through OKCupid, Tinder, and Bumble, you’ll probably encounter some frustrations, too. Along with fake photos, inaccurate relationship statuses, and offensive messages, you might encounter other less-than-stellar behaviors — and plenty of new lingo to go with them.

Already familiar with ghosting, benching, and slow-fading? Here’s another term to know: breadcrumbing.

Someone who breadcrumbs leads you on by dropping small morsels of interest — an occasional message, phone call, date plan, or social media interaction. These happen sporadically and usually don’t have any followthrough.

If they sense you’re ready to throw in the towel, they pursue you a little more attentively. But once you gobble up the breadcrumbs they drop and wait for more, you find that the trail has stopped once again.

Why do people do this? More importantly, how can you sweep away the crumbs once and for all?

Getting to know someone who seems a little noncommittal? Maybe enough messages trickle into your phone that you feel sure they’re still interested. After all, if they didn’t like you, they’d stop messaging, right?

In reality, people who breadcrumb generally want to keep you interested, even when they have no real plans of building a relationship.

Breadcrumbing signs

A typical breadcrumber might:

  • fail to reply to texts or chats for several days or weeks, then send a few long messages without explaining why they temporarily disappeared
  • mention shared interests or experiences to reinforce a sense of connection
  • keep you looking to the future with vague statements like, “Let’s pencil that in”
  • imply that they’d love to see you but ignore your requests to make an actual plan
  • keep messages superficial and generic instead of offering concrete details or showing interest in your daily life
  • view or like your social media posts without responding, while still ignoring actual messages you’ve sent
  • communicate primarily with photos, memes, or emoji
  • show interest in hooking up but not spending non-physical time together
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Typically, someone dropping breadcrumbs doesn’t feel entirely willing to write off the possibility of seeing you again. Once you stop responding or hint that you’re losing interest, they might up their efforts by suddenly maintaining regular contact, making actual plans, and following through.

This apparent renewed interest might reinforce your original attraction and give you new hope of building a real, lasting connection.

Before long, though, they drift off the trail again, and the pattern begins anew. You grab for your phone at every notification, but you can’t get them to respond with anything more than a late-night text or two.

Breadcrumbing can feel confusing, frustrating, and pretty darn painful. It also wastes your time.

When you like someone who drops these crumbs of interest, you might believe they do want to get to know you and build a relationship — as soon as their schedule clears up, that is. In other words, it gives you hope for something that probably won’t happen.

Some people might realize their communication tactics leave something to be desired, but they may have less awareness of just how much their vague, sporadic messages upset you.

Breadcrumbing can certainly be intentional, but more indirect motives can drive this behavior, too.

They like you but don’t want to commit

Plenty of people find the idea of relationship commitment more than they can handle. They want to connect, but they lack the interest or emotional availability to sustain any deeper involvement.

They find you attractive and enjoy talking to you, so they keep the connection alive. But they aren’t ready to work toward a meaningful relationship, so they hold back just enough to keep things from progressing.

This doesn’t do you any favors when you want a long-term commitment and feel perfectly capable of building one.

They’re not ready to say goodbye

Ex-partners can breadcrumb you, too. You’ve agreed to end the relationship and move forward, but they keep sending the occasional text or photo along with a “This made me think of you,” or “Missed you today.”

These mixed signals can confuse you, especially when you have some lingering feelings. Do they want to try again? Are they hoping to stay in touch as friends? Or are they testing the waters for a no-strings-attached fling?

They might have an innocent reason, like a desire for friendship they don’t quite know how to communicate. Sometimes, though, breadcrumbing from an ex can also suggest an attempt to maintain control or rekindle your interest, particularly if you ended the relationship.

They’re lonely

Someone who lacks healthy friendships and relationships and struggles to connect with others might find it easier to maintain several shallow connections. Maybe they realize that they have a hard time developing healthy relationships but don’t know how to address the issue productively.

Breadcrumbing, then, can become a way of getting social needs met. They drop enough crumbs so that they always have someone to talk to, without realizing superficial relationships won’t necessarily ease loneliness in the way they hope.

Friendly and romantic connections are certainly important, but one or two close friendships generally prove more fulfilling than a number of casual friendships.

Someone in a committed relationship with a busy or distant partner might even breadcrumb as a way of getting emotional and social fulfillment where they can, despite knowing they won’t go so far as to meet up with someone. (This generally still counts as micro-cheating.)

They see you as a backup plan

People may also use breadcrumbing as a tactic to keep your connection alive in case their current relationship doesn’t work out. They make vague plans and put you off because they really don’t have any free time to spare, since they already have a partner.

Still, they leave you simmering on the back burner, stirring the pot every so often with a “You’ve been on my mind lately” or “Let’s get together soon.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to get to know a lot of people in order to find the best match. But it becomes problematic (and painful) when people aren’t upfront about their motivations and relationship status, or when they deliberately deceive you in order to keep you interested.

In some cases, breadcrumbing may not happen intentionally. Good communication skills don’t come naturally to everyone, and some people have a hard time conveying interest and romantic feelings in an easily understandable way.

Keep in mind, too, that text lacks tone. It’s pretty easy to get the wrong impression or misinterpret someone’s words, especially if that’s your primary method of communication.

Let’s say you just matched with someone you really want to meet. You don’t want to seem too forward, so you ask a few questions and then give them time to respond. When their answers don’t take the conversation in any new direction, you take a day or two to think about what you want to say next.

They don’t say anything, either, leaving you wondering whether they’re actually into you. After a few days of debate, you send another message to show you’re still interested. They respond, and you exchange a few more texts. You still can’t tell whether they have a genuine interest, though, and you draw back once again.

Experiences like these are fairly common in online dating, particularly among people who fear rejection or worry about how they come across to others.

You could also end up breadcrumbing unintentionally when you don’t know what you want. Maybe you have a lot of fun on your casual dates or hookups. Some days, you think you’d like to take things further, but other times, you doubt you’re ready for the commitment a relationship requires.

While it’s absolutely OK to have unclear or uncertain relationship goals, it’s also essential to make sure you share these with potential dating partners. Breadcrumbing doesn’t just cause people distress — it also keeps them from finding someone who does know what they want.

Recent research exploring breadcrumbing (yep, that’s a thing) in dating suggests it often contributes to feelings of loneliness and helplessness.

Experiencing breadcrumbing might also leave you less satisfied with life in general, and no wonder — you’re putting your life on hold for someone who shows just enough interest to fuel your sense of hope but not enough to provide the connection you want.

Instead of picking up the crumbs they scatter, try these strategies.

Call them out

When you think someone’s breadcrumbing you, pointing out the behavior can accomplish two goals:

  • It shows your awareness of any attempts to lead you on.
  • It gives them the opportunity to share any personal concerns, like health or family issues, that might be getting in the way of more regular communication and dating.

Try this:

  • “I feel frustrated when I don’t hear from you for several days, especially because I can see you’ve read my messages. I totally get that life is complicated, but I’m looking for someone who can stay in touch on a regular basis and let me know when things come up.”

Initiate a conversation about relationship goals

People want different things from their relationships. These needs may not remain static over time, especially when you factor in the various complications of daily life.

Maybe they intended to pursue a relationship when you first met, but things have since changed, and they’re not sure how to bring it up. It never hurts to check in and offer a reminder of what you’re looking for.

Try this:

  • “I’m getting the impression that we have different relationship goals at the moment. I’d like to work on building a stable relationship. How about you?”

Suggest a specific date and time to meet

One common type of breadcrumb consists of vague, half-formed plans. You know the ones:

  • “We should definitely go back to that park soon.”
  • “Let’s plan on that in the near future.”
  • “Looking forward to seeing you again.”

Counter this behavior by getting specific instead.

  • “Yes, we should. How about a picnic Saturday at noon?”
  • “I’m free next weekend and the one after. Which works best for you?”
  • “My schedule’s pretty open. What nights are you free?”

Offering specific times may lead to an actual meeting, if they aren’t purposely trying to breadcrumb you.

If they don’t actually want to meet, they’ll probably avoid committing to a time or cancel the plans at the last minute.

In that case, you can try:

  • “You seem pretty busy, so I’ll let you suggest a time to meet once you’re free.”

Respect your own needs

Maybe you realize that they have no intention of getting serious, but you don’t really care. You might feel totally fine with hooking up casually when they have the time or seeing them when they’re between partners. That’s absolutely fine, as long as you know what you want for yourself.

When you do want more regular communication and an established relationship, make it clear that you aren’t willing to wait around.

When a potential partner seems ideal in a few key ways, it’s sometimes easier to ignore signs suggesting they may not, in fact, be right for you.

When someone consistently shows a lack of willingness to connect on an emotional level, spend time with you, or move your relationship forward, honor your needs by ignoring the crumbs of affection they offer, saying goodbye, and moving on.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.