You can now add 'breadcrumbing' to your modern day dating handbook – which no doubt already includes ghosting, gaslighting and love bombing.
The newest toxic trait to watch out for seems to be growing more common, with as many as 36% having previously experienced it in a romantic relationship, according to a Lovehoney survey of 2,000 Britons.
But what exactly is it, how can we look out for it in our dating endeavours and why do people do it?
What is breadcrumbing?
Breadcrumbing is when daters leave a trail of breadcrumbs – Hansel and Gretel style – in the form of flirty messages, DMs (replying to Instagrams stories a favourite) or drunken phone calls to keep you interested.
But the key part is that while there may be suggestions of meeting for a drink or talking about future plans, these will never actually be followed up.
In a nutshell, “Breadcrumbing is when someone leads another person on, and makes them feel that there’s a possibility of a deeper and meaningful relationship in the future when in fact it’s unlikely to progress further than the stage it’s at," says Ness Cooper, relationship expert at The Sex Consultant, who has partnered with Lovehoney.
Breadcrumbing red flags
To arm you what what you need to know and help you avoid falling victim to breadcrumbing (or even potentially recognise the trait in yourself)...) Cooper has shared the top five red flags to look out for:
1) Their actions don't reflect what they've said
They say things to their partner but don’t follow through with them. This can be particularly toxic when they add gaslighting or avoidance to the mix, when called out on it or questioned why it hasn’t been seen through.
2) They’re all about their needs not yours
If you’re finding they’re willing to take action in the relationship when it benefits them but don’t do the same when you need action, the relationship is all about them and not you.
3) They’re not interested in learning about your world
If they cut the conversation short when you share about yourself, it can be a red flag that they’re leading you on and breadcrumbing you.
4) They aren’t consistent
What they tell you doesn’t match up with other things they’ve previously shared with you. They may change how they say things to manipulate you and keep you hanging on.
5) There's a lack of communication until they want something
If they’re taking too long to reply to messages but are actively seen responding to others, then this can be a red flag for breadcrumbing.
Why do people breadcrumb?
Whether you are the breadcrumbee, or indeed the breadcrumber, while things can often be a little more complicated than they seem, there's a need to understand why more of us are leading others on in this way.
It seems the trickiest aspect is being able to tell when someone is flaking or avoiding plans for genuine reasons, and when they're just stringing you along. So, for example, if someone likes us, is it true they would just make the effort to see us, or is it a little more complicated than that?
"We all lead busy lives and finding the time to see someone can genuinely be difficult," says Spitz. "But there’s a difference between saying 'Sorry I’m busy/I can’t' and saying 'I’d really like to see you but I’ve got x,y,z things on so how about this alternative time?'."
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The reasons people's words or number of messages don't seem to match their actions may run deeper too, explains Cooke.
"Research shows that 25% of us are anxiously attached and 20% of us are avoidantly attached in our romantic relationships. These are both fear-based relating styles, which can manifest in feeling reticent in our dating lives.
"People may suffer from low self-esteem, have had bad experiences in the past or feel stuck in a place of worry, and not be able to move forward. In this way people's behaviour is extremely complex."
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So what are the key ways to spot the difference between a breadcrumber and someone who is just genuinely busy?
"Breadcrumbers flit in and out of your life, sometimes they may seem more available than others but never really offer you the opportunity to meet or if they do, they often cancel," says Spitz.
"People who are genuinely busy will tell you specifically and should be more engaged by texting or phoning and always offer an alternative time, and make it!" she adds.
It seems the element of rearranging (and actually doing it) is crucial in distinguishing between those leading you on and those who are interested.
"Breadcrumbers on the whole are calculated in their approach," explains Cooke. "There is a sense of being given just enough to remain interested, as they like to keep their options open and will probably be speaking to multiple people."
If someone is plain busy or struggling with low self-esteem, then their sporadic communication often tends to be more on the theme of people-pleasing, she adds: "For example, they might text you randomly looking for confirmation that you are still interested or asking what you're up to but never really investing in you by asking what’s going on in your life."
Spritz has some theories about why people engage in breadcrumbing behaviours. "Ego and connection come to mind," she says. "We all want to engage and connect but the effort to meet and date are often disappointing. By breadcrumbing we know that we are found attractive and can flirt but without any real cost or emotion."
So, if breadcrumbing behaviour is easier to slip into than we realise, is it always a bad thing? While Spitz acknowledges that longing for connection is part of human nature, she confirms breadcrumbing isn't a positive. "It offers nothing but a quick hit, it’s not a meaningful way to interact," she says.
And, more seriously, there are some emotional implications to consider. "Breadcrumbing hurts, you may feel connected to someone and then they disappear and reappear," Spitz adds. "It can make some people feel abandoned, rejected and not good enough."
While easier said than done, Spritz has some advice for those who feel they are victim to breadcrumbing and are considering whether to remove themselves from the situation.
"I think each person has the right to choose for themselves what kind of interaction they want," she says. "But I would wonder why you would want this for yourself and what you really thought you deserved."
All genders can be just as guilty of breadcrumbing, though the motivation behind it may be different. Cooke makes the interesting point that women, for example, can sometimes do it "because they don’t want to hurt a person's feelings by saying directly they’re not interested.
"They may be noncommittal in their communication hoping that the person they are dating will take the hint," she adds.
So essentially letting someone down gently but inadvertently leading them on. A vicious dating circle...
Breadcrumbing doesn't just affect the person on the receiving end either, but the person doing it too. "I think breadcrumbers are avoidant, they might feel disconnected and powerful but in reality they are unable to connect in any meaningful way," Spitz explains. "The danger is that this is how they approach relationships in real life and that’s not healthy."
How can breadcrumbers change their mindset?
"Modern day relationships are often very painful because people are not directly communicative with one another," says Cooke.
"In the dating world, being open and upfront with each other would help people feel less confused and able to engage better with other people moving forward."
Dating without wanting any commitment is of course okay, as long as all parties are aware of that. "I always suggest being polite but honest," says Cooke. "Even if it might be difficult to hear, it is far better for people to know where they stand with us, rather than keep them guessing.”
If you're a breadcrumber, Spitz advises to try and understand what you are looking for and what you gain by doing it and ask yourself if this is really what you want and why?
She also suggests talking to someone about it. "I think a good therapist would help explore these questions. I think ultimately breadcrumbing is damaging for both the breadcrumber and the breadcrumbed."
With this in mind, exchanging flirty messages may not be worth the potential pain ahead.