When you’re getting to know a potential romantic partner, we all want to assume honesty and trust. But when you meet someone who seems genuinely interested in getting to know you but at the same time unwilling to actually commit to anything resembling a real relationship—that, dear reader, sounds like breadcrumbing to me.
Breadcrumbing is when someone gives the appearance of wanting to pursue something with you by signalling interest in developing and deepening the relationship—but then stops right on the cusp of things getting serious. They leave you a trail of enticing little breadcrumbs, keeping you coming back for more: a single-emoji text first thing in the morning for you to wake up to, an unexpected selfie at lunchtime, a surprisingly late-night phone call—but punctuated by swathes of unbearable radio silence.
A breadcrumber doesn’t give themselves to you in any meaningful quantity; you’ll always be left unsatisfied, emotionally and psychologically wanting and unfulfilled—but it’s tricky because they give just enough to prevent you from losing interest altogether. Most likely, your breadcrumber thrives off the attention you’re giving them: they feel empowered and validated by the undivided adoration of another—regardless of who that may be. But maybe they’re lonely, too, hungry for a connection and using you for it, when in reality you’re just not the kind of person they want to be connecting with. If the dialogue wanes, they know all they have to do is send a cheeky message out of the blue, a flirty text, and the wave of fascination will roll towards them once more thick and fast. All the while, they have zero intention of actually forging any meaningful relationship out of this dynamic, leaving you hopeful, then hurt, then humiliated. As the façade of a rapport inexorably builds, you get excited—yet when you ask to meet for a drink on that fateful day, you see nothing appear on your screen but tumbleweeds.
According to psychologist Val Walker, the 24/7 immediacy of instant messaging both created and exacerbates the problem, leaving breadcrumbees tethered helplessly to their phones, desperate for a notification that, in all likelihood, just ain’t coming:
Breadcrumbing employs reinforcers which stimulate addictive behaviour (suspensefully waiting for likes, random messages, praise, encouraging comments, flirtatious texts, and photos). The basic motivator of this behaviour is the anticipation of the reward.
Being breadcrumbed isn’t fun—but it’s an easy trap to fall into, and universally understandable. After all, when we want someone and we’re still in that hot and exciting early phase of getting to know them (or so we think), part of the package is waiting on their response to your text, wondering what they’ve been up to, and what they’re doing right now. And while it may be of little consolation when the pain is raw, psychology professor Kelly Campbell notes that breadcrumbing generally speaks far more of the issues of the one perpetrating it than of the one falling for it. Breadcrumbers are so often characterised by low self-esteem and a yearning for validation, says Campell:
They don’t feel comfortable or confident unless they’re getting constant reassurance from others that they’re worthy or valuable.
So what can you do if you’re in the unfortunate position of being breadcrumbed? In a nutshell, there are only two ways the torment ends:
- direct confrontation—but remember, while there’s no doubting it can be cathartic to tell someone their actions have hurt you, how likely is this course of action to galvanise change in someone whose very disposition has led to them being a breadcrumber in the first place?
- ending things, perhaps after speaking to friends and family about your experience to get some emotional validation of your own.
Campbell goes on:
Call it out by name and condemn the practice. Talk with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. They have probably been breadcrumbed at some point in their lives, too. Or write in your journal.
Once you well and truly see breadcrumbing for what it is, you’ll feel more sure of yourself when you conclude that this person is absolutely not worth your time, attention, or love. Remember how great you are, all that you have to give to another—and realise what a waste of your time this endeavour has become. This also empowers you to be far less likely to take the bait next time, whether from the individual in question or a future breadcrumber who hasn’t yet stumbled across your path.
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