What Is "Breadcrumbing"? A Relationships Expert Explains

breadcrumbing in a relationship
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You've probably heard of "ghosting" and "gaslighting"—two dating terms in the mainstream lexicon due to the prevalence of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble. But what about "breadcrumbing?" To gain insight into the latest phenomenon in modern dating, we asked Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and human development at California State University, San Bernardino, to weigh in.

Meet the Expert

Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, San Bernardino. Her research examines instant connections among friends and romantic partners, how being in love helps and/or hinders performance across domains (e.g., athletics, creativity), infidelity, and catfishing (online romantic deception).

Breadcrumbing Definition

According to Campbell, breadcrumbing "is leading someone on romantically using online or electronic forums (think: social media or texting) to keep someone's interest in you, even if you never intend to become romantically involved with them." It's essentially an emotionally manipulative tactic designed to make someone dependent on you (or vice versa, depending on the relationship dynamic).

What Is "Breadcrumbing"?

"Breadcrumbing" is the act of sending out flirtatious, but non-committal social signals (i.e. "breadcrumbs") in order to lure a romantic partner in without expending much effort. In other words, it's leading someone on.

Ahead Campbell breaks down the psychology behind breadcrumbing in relationships, including the red flags to watch out for, the reasoning behind the manipulative behavior, and how to navigate the next steps.

how to respond to breadcrumbing
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The Red Flags

They are less invested in getting together than you are.

"[Breadcrumbers] make plans with you but cancel or don't show up, and they seem too busy for you," explains Campbell. "They might even go absent for periods of time," she adds.

You never know where you stand with them.

According to Campbell, breadcrumbers "are sporadic, inconsistent, and unpredictable in their expression of interest" in you.

They seem warm toward you but then turn cold.

For instance, "they take a long time to respond to your messages," offers Campbell as an example of this behavior.

You can't understand or explain their actions.

"You are often left confused or frustrated after interacting with them," Campbell elaborates.

breadcrumbing psychology
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The Reasoning

According to Campbell, people engage in breadcrumbing "because their self-esteem is impacted by how much attention they can secure from others." Although the exact reasons for the behavior vary, there are a few psychological patterns she points to as to why people do it.

They feel better about themselves.

"The more interest from others they maintain, the better they feel about themselves," she explains.

They need validation from others.

"They don't feel comfortable or confident unless they get constant reassurance from others that they are worthy or valuable," says Campbell.

They're narcissistic.

"Often, these individuals have a personality characterized by narcissism as well as a game-playing, shallow approach to relationships," she observes. "They don't feel guilty about manipulating others and playing with people's emotions."

They're already in a relationship.

"Another reason this can happen is that they are already in a relationship with someone yet are still seeking attention from others," Campbell divulges.

The Next Steps

First and foremost, "the solution is to work on yourself," says Campbell. Augment your self-esteem by engaging in activities that you excel at and by treating yourself kindly. "Engage in self-care, use positive self-talk," Campbell advises.

Taking care of your own well-being is an important step in boosting your self-esteem, according to Campbell. "You set the example for how others should treat you, so don't tolerate poor treatment," she explains. "You deserve someone who is willing to give you the same amount of attention you are willing to invest."

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