You can add 'breadcrumbing' to your modern day dating handbook – no doubt already full of ghosting, gaslighting and love bombing.
Breadcrumbing – Hansel and Gretel style – is when daters leave a trail of breadcrumbs 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.
So, whether you are the breadcrumbee, or indeed the breadcrumber, why are more and more of us are leading others on in this way? We called in Lisa Spitz, Counsellor & Psychotherapist and Charisse Cooke, Relationship Therapist, to help us get to the bottom of it.
It seems the trickiest is being able to tell when someone is flaking or avoiding plans for genuine reasons, and when they're just stringing you along. So, 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?
"I think 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?'."
Read more: How to date in 2022
The reasons why 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."
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 phone 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."
So why do people do it? "Ego and connection come to mind," says Spitz. "I think 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."
On this point, she also doesn't think breadcrumbers are specific to any particular age group, just anyone who might engage with internet dating or be on social media who wants to connect without the pressure of real commitment.
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, what emotional implications can it have? "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, should those who feel they are victim to breadcrumbing remove themselves from the situation and how? Spitz explains, "I think each person has the right to choose for themselves what kind of interaction they want, 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 says. 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, 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."
So how can those doing the breadcrumbing 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, "I would say 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 even 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.