Skip to content

Dating 101: What Is Breadcrumbing?

From soul ties to limerence to micro-cheating, it feels like there are more dating terms of art in use right now than ever before—and unless you’re on TikTok 24/7, it’s virtually impossible to keep abreast of all of them. Luckily for you, that’s where we come in.

Below, find everything you need to know about the recently identified (but long-practiced) phenomenon of breadcrumbing. (But also, if you feel strongly that you actually don’t need to know anything about breadcrumbing, and just want a general refresher on what Gen Z is up to and how they’re cleverly repackaging their elders’ less-witty terms for “heartbreak,” that’s fine too.)

What is breadcrumbing?

Psychology Today defines breadcrumbing as “stringing someone along with small nuggets of communication—but never fully committing to a relationship.” In other words, think of it as ghosting, albeit with a haunting element; instead of just leaving you alone (unkind, but clear), the ghost in question will get back in touch when you’re least expecting it, sometimes with direct contact and sometimes with, say, an Instagram DM or comment that will leave you texting “???” to your three closest group chats for at least the next 24 hours.

What are some pop-culture examples of breadcrumbing?

Rachel Bloom put her own spin on the term with her CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, writing a whole song about the “love kernels” that the object of her obsession would feed her to keep her interested every time she was almost ready to move on. (Sample line: “Little compliments here and there that I secretly stockpile in my woman brain.”)

More relevantly (to the current Netflix algorithm, anyway), the way that Big treated Carrie throughout the majority of Sex and the City’s original series run arguably qualified as breadcrumbing. I mean, avoiding any kind of intimacy when they were actually dating, then pursuing her when she had a boyfriend? Starting a full-on affair with her when he was married? Continually popping into her life even after he moved to Napa? (Yes, I was able to recite all of these plot points off the top of my head, and no, my parents aren’t proud.)

What emotional patterns does breadcrumbing play into?

Psychologist Susan Albers described breadcrumbing to the Cleveland Clinic as working “on the principle of intermittent reinforcement, which is a principle in psychology that describes an addictive cycle.” Albers uses the example of gambling to illustrate her point; if wins never happened, it would be easy to walk away from the table, but as it is, they happen just often enough to keep you hooked on the possibility that you might get a ”win" (i.e. favorable attention) instead of a “loss” (radio silence) this time.

How do I shut down a breadcrumbing situation?

I hate to say this, especially because I was perhaps the most breadcrumb-susceptible person alive in my single days, but the wisest thing to do from a mental and emotional health standpoint is to simply cut off contact with the person breadcrumbing you—to the extent that that’s possible. Obviously, we can’t fully control the behavior of others, but if you need a script to try, here’s one: “I’ve thought about this a lot and decided that any further contact between us would not be beneficial to my growth. Please respect my boundary and do not call/text/message/contact me in person or on social media. Thank you.”

The original article can be found on American Vouge.

Share this article: