What is toxic ‘breadcrumbing’? Experts share signs and how to address it

What is toxic ‘breadcrumbing’? Experts share signs and how to address it

They love me, they love me not — the phrase sounds like an innocent children’s game. But for some people looking for a relationship in the modern dating scene, a potential partner’s wavering commitment is a painful experience that can leave them torn between feeling hopeful and hopeless.

These days, the harmful behavior is popularly known as “breadcrumbing” — sporadic acts of attention that don’t really result in anything the victim may consider meaningful, said Duygu Balan, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and attachment wounding in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Breadcrumbing refers to a form of manipulation — whether intentional or not — involving one person “feigning interest and acting as though they feel sincerely interested and invested in a relationship with another person when they are not,” said Dr. Monica Vermani, a Canada-based clinical psychologist and author of “A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas.”

Those who intentionally act in misleading ways may do so for attention, validation or control, or to get the fun parts of a relationship without having to commit.

Stringing a person along keeps “someone from looking elsewhere for a more stable, reliable and real connection, and remain hopeful and focused on them,” Vermani added.

Others may just be conflicted about what they want, or uncomfortable with intimacy due to their upbringing or trauma, experts said. These people may also feel inadequate and incapable of engaging in healthy, authentic relationships.

Breadcrumbing can happen in familial relationships and the workplace, but it’s most common in romantic contexts, Balan said — especially with the rise of online dating, where it’s much easier for people to offer brief spurts of connection and affection with a quick call, text or like on a post.

Why breadcrumbing works to keep someone in the perpetrator’s corner is based on the psychology principle of “intermittent reinforcement,” which drives the addictive cycle and success of gambling behavior.

With a slot machine, every so often there’s a little winning, so you keep playing in hopes of achieving that again, said Dr. Kelly Campbell, a professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino — whereas if you never won, you wouldn’t keep playing.

Regardless of why someone breadcrumbs, the impact can be incredibly harmful, especially if it lasts years, experts said.

Here’s how to recognize when you’re being breadcrumbed, and how to move on if the time comes.

On the hook and on the shelf

In the workplace, you might be experiencing breadcrumbing if a supervisor’s high praise and vague promises of advancement never materialize, Vermani said.

“A friend may feign interest and connection without any intention of getting together, traveling or engaging in a real, genuine friendship, but in reality only call you when they need something from you,” she added. “Often, in these relationships, the target feels used and not a real priority of their abuser."

In romantic contexts, you may receive texts, poems, playlists, compliments, online content about shared interests, or long flirtatious or heartfelt messages. The person may even seem thoughtful when appearing out of the woodwork to ask how your brother’s piano recital went.

But these communications dwindle, then continue intermittently. Plans to go on dates or commit to one another fall through or seldom happen, experts said — and when they do, the victim’s often doing the planning.

Some “seasoned breadcrumbers,” Vermani added, may be vague about where they are and what they do, and feel unattainable.

“But should the target of the breadcrumber express dissatisfaction and a desire to move on, often the breadcrumber suddenly becomes highly interested — as a means, of course, of keeping their target on the hook, only to eventually place them back on the shelf.”

An insidious emotional impact

Breadcrumbing can create tremendous confusion and distress for the target, Vermani said.

“Over time, the target is emotionally manipulated, deceived and disrespected,” she added. “They feel anxious, sad, confused, lonely, inadequate, abandoned, embarrassed … hopeless and hopeful, angry and unworthy of love or attention.”

As a result, someone may settle for scraps of attention, thinking it’s normal or what they deserve — therefore lowering one’s expectations of relationships, repeatedly searching for relationships with familiar patterns and preventing oneself from finding something better, Campbell said.

Healing from breadcrumbing

If breadcrumbing is happening in a relationship that’s important to you, confronting the person is worth it, Campbell said.

“You need to provide them with the opportunity to correct their behavior and show you that it was a mistake and they’ll do better in the future,” she added. “They can’t mind read, so they don’t know. So if you’ve expressed what that was that bothered you and they don’t change, that’s when you can say, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’”

If you must instead move on from the person, recovering can be a difficult, but doable, process.

Being able to recognize breadcrumbing is the first and most important step, experts said.

But then you need to identify the root of why you’re accepting such maltreatment, which can help you begin the journey of building your self-esteem. Working with a mental health expert to do so can be especially helpful.

Another reason why therapy can be useful is because the process can show you what a healthy relationship is, contrary to what you’re used to, Balan said.
A therapist, ideally, is someone who consistently acknowledges, empathizes, is accountable, genuinely listens and shows care — and, when falling short, apologizes and gives “importance to that person’s emotions,” she added.

A healthy relationship also cannot be forced, “because if it’s not genuine, it’s not real,” Balan said. “If it doesn’t come organically, if it doesn’t come from the person’s heart … just doing the act for the act itself without the emotions and the commitment is actually quite meaningless.”

See people for who they honestly are and “let go of your false sense of hope,” Vermani said. Terminate contact with the person since a reappearance can lure you back into the addictive cycle.

“People in pain spill over onto others,” Vermani said. “Don’t personalize people’s actions. Remember people show you who they are — not who you are.”

If you are on the flip side of this equation and now realize you’re the breadcrumber, experts have similar advice: With a therapist, work on understanding your issues with intimacy and commitment.

On the other hand, Campbell said, if you’re just in a noncommittal, exploratory phase, directly communicate with a better match — someone who also isn’t looking for anything serious and would have the same inconsistent, pressure-free intentions as you.


CNN lifestyle Citizen Digital Citizen Citizen Tv Breadcrumbing

Want to send us a story? SMS to 25170 or WhatsApp 0743570000 or Submit on Citizen Digital or email wananchi@royalmedia.co.ke

Leave a Comment


No comments yet.

latest stories