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If You See These Signs, You May Be a Victim of Breadcrumbing

It’s not easy to recognize the red flags someone is breadcrumbing you. However, once you learn to spot the signs, it becomes easier to respond to this form of emotional abuse.

I’ve been here before — so many times in fact, that it’s a familiar path. I can recognize the breadcrumbs they’re leaving. Only one question remains: Will I repeat my pattern and follow them? 

Dr. Roxy Zarrabi of Psychology Today defines breadcrumbing as “the behavior of showing another person occasional signs of romantic interest in order to keep them invested, without necessarily having the intention to follow through.”

Most of us have experienced this at some point in our lives. We’re led to believe that there is relationship potential when there actually isn’t any. We keep investing in the interactions because we mistakenly believe there will be a payoff for our effort. 

I don’t want to keep learning the same lessons over and over again. In order to disrupt my own patterns, I need to be more self-aware of my habits, but I equally need to be aware of the messages I’m getting from potential partners.

There are at least nine clear signs of breadcrumbing. If we pay attention to them, we’re more likely to avoid being the victims of this behavior. 

1. Inconsistent Contact

One of the primary signs of breadcrumbing is that the person we’re interacting with in a romantic context is consistently inconsistent with contact. In fact, it becomes one of the only things we can count on. We can send out a message, and it’s rare that we’ll get an immediate response.

In fact, it may be hours, days, or weeks before they make contact. We can be sure of one thing: They’ll eventually get in touch because they want to give us just enough of an interaction to keep us hanging on. 

Breadcrumbers do this because they want to keep us as an option in case whoever they are currently engaging with doesn’t work out. We’re not top of the list. We might not even be second in line. We’re just one of many options to keep on the hook. In other words, we’re the contingency plan.

How To Respond

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be anyone’s contingency plan in case their “better” options don’t work out. When it comes to inconsistent contact, we have some options in how to respond to this breadcrumbing behavior. First of all, we need to call it out.

Confronting them on the inconsistent contact holds them accountable. It also lets them know that we know exactly what they’re doing and don’t appreciate it. This confrontation will allow them to either step up if they’re truly interested or bow out if they’re not. 

Secondly, we need to learn to energy match when it comes to dating. If he’s being inconsistent, we don’t keep reaching out. We learn to reciprocate the energy we’re receiving. This isn’t about playing games.

It’s about recognizing what investment they’re making in the relationship and mirroring that. It keeps us from over-investing our time, energy, and emotions into someone who can’t be bothered to return a text. 

2. Commitment Avoidance

Another key sign of breadcrumbing is commitment avoidance. Breadcrumbers don’t want to commit to a date, much less talk about the relationship and where it’s going. They are great about swerving any conversations away from this topic.

Some of them might use the age-old favorite of not being “into labels.” Others might give excuses about wanting to take things slow and let things develop organically. The common denominator is we get just enough reassurance to hang on without actually getting the clarity we want.

Many breadcrumbers are emotionally unavailable. They dodge commitment in any form. These are the people who only want to make last-minute plans. When we see this behavior, it’s tempting to tell ourselves one excuse or another about why they are this way. Instead, we need to learn how to respond to it appropriately.

How To Respond

When a potential partner shows commitment avoidance, we need to (a) confront the behavior, and (b) disengage. Confronting the behavior by asking directly about their level of commitment challenges them to define a relationship they are trying not to define at all.

Instead of letting them distract us with excuses, we can stay calm and hold the line. Is it a relationship, or not? Are we Facebook-official, or not? Is it exclusive, or not? These are yes or no questions that don’t require a long answer, so don’t be distracted by their attempts to give one. 

If they are unwilling to commit, we need to be willing to recognize they aren’t ready or willing to enter a relationship and disengage. This might involve blocking them and deleting their contact information.

It might just involve downgrading the interaction to a friendship level. It’s important to recognize that they don’t want what we do and proceed accordingly.

3. Hot and Cold Behavior

Another clear sign of breadcrumbing is hot and cold behavior. They might come on strong initially, but then suddenly, they seem disinterested and/or unresponsive.

Just when we’re about to give up on them, they turn up the heat. It successfully keeps us engaged because we get just enough effort to think it’s going somewhere — but it never does.

Hot and cold behavior can make us feel like we’re going crazy. I know I’ve spent time trying to decipher messages and figure out what’s going on. This on-again, off-again interaction can keep us on an emotional rollercoaster if we let it. 

How To Respond

There are ways to respond to hot and cold behavior. I will always recommend communicating about it directly first. Call it out. Point out the inconsistency. It gives them a chance to respond, but it also holds them accountable. The key here is not to buy into their excuses but rather let them know that we see what they’re doing and won’t continue to tolerate it. 

We need to respond to hot and cold behavior with clear boundaries. We need to let them know that (a) we see it, (b) we don’t like it, and (c ) we will absolutely disengage from contact if they continue it.

We need to be clear about where the boundary is and how we’ll enforce it. It’s not a threat or ultimatum. It’s a boundary that protects us from unhealthy interactions.

4. Shallow Conversation

In my experience of dealing with breadcrumbers, I’ve noticed that most of the conversation is shallow. Every now and then, they might throw in a little vulnerability to keep us on the hook, but they primarily keep the relationship shallow and in the realm of physical, not emotional, connection.

This keeps the relationship from developing true intimacy, which is the point. Most breadcrumbers, being emotionally unavailable, have a strong fear of intimacy. It’s why they often opt for shallow relationships over strong, healthy ones. 

How To Respond

To respond to this breadcrumbing behavior, we need to be willing to go deeper. We can introduce topics that delve into their lives and feelings. Instead of keeping everything on the surface, we can challenge the status quo and seek out more meaningful conversation with each interaction.

Don’t be surprised if they try to rapidly disengage from contact if this happens, but that’s kind of the point. If they can’t go deeper, we need to recognize that boundary and move on. 

5. Frequent Cancellation 

One of my least favorite traits of the breadcrumber is the frequent, last-minute cancellation of plans. It’s hard enough to get them to commit to plans, but then they cancel on us. As a single parent, this is one of my greatest pet peeves.

If I have to rearrange my schedule and book a sitter, I’m going out whether anyone else shows up or not. It’s frustrating to make plans with someone and look forward to the upcoming date only to end up sitting alone at dinner or trying to make the best of a last-minute cancellation. 

They always have excuses. In fact, sometimes, they’ll even sound legitimate. One cancellation might be excusable, but frequent cancellations are a pattern of behavior that tell us where we stand. 

How To Respond

It’s important to respond to this behavior with a clear boundary. If plans are set and they cancel, we’ll not be making any more plans with them. It’s that simple. We need to let them know that with the exception of a real emergency, cancellations — particularly last-minute ones — are not tolerated.

Again, it’s not about making an ultimatum or issuing a threat. It’s about making it clear that we won’t tolerate having our time wasted and will treat it as obvious disinterest and adjust accordingly. Someone who wants to spend time with us will make the effort to show up. 

6. Few IRL Interactions

I’ve noticed that many breadcrumbers will message or text, but we don’t often seem them in real life. They keep the contact in the realm of digital connection. Seeing them in person is a rarity.

This gives us just enough interaction to want to invest in the idea of a relationship while they put in minimal effort. They’re leaving just enough digital breadcrumbs to keep us following but not enough to cement an actual relationship.

We might fall in love with the idea of a relationship with this person, but we’re not even truly enjoying the non-relationship we have with them. Most of the time, we’re just dissatisfied and left wanting more. It might be time to choose a new way to respond to this digital engagement that lacks the real-life interaction we crave. 

How To Respond

It’s easy to allow this to continue because it doesn’t take effort from us either. Not really. To respond to this breadcrumbing behavior in a healthy way, we need to be honest with ourselves about what we’re seeing.

Unless we really want a pen pal in our lives, we need to stop giving them relationship energy and start putting them in the slot of friend or even acquaintance. It’s all about matching their energy. We need to stop reading into their minimal effort and interpreting it as a real relationship when it’s not. 

7. Consistent Confusion

The key to breadcrumbing behavior is that we feel consistently confused. We never have enough clarity about whether we’re in a relationship, a situationship, a friends-with-benefits scenario, or if we’re just the side piece.

They give us just enough to think they are romantically interested in us without shifting the interaction into an actual public and committed relationship. We’re left trying to figure out what’s going on. 

Sadly, I’ve even experienced this inside a relationship. I knew we were still together, but I would get just enough attention to keep me there but not enough to keep me happy.

I was constantly discouraged by the engagement and withdrawal I noticed and getting him to commit to any future plans became impossible. It would take a long time to admit that I was being breadcrumbed while he was figuring out if we was going to stay or go.

How To Respond

The confusion is a sign that this isn’t a healthy, safe, or secure relationship. Healthy relationships will involve clear communication. Unhealthy relationships will leave us confused. It’s that simple.

We need to face facts and admit that this person just isn’t invested in a relationship with us and move on. 

8. Physical Effort, Not Emotional

Another sign of breadcrumbing involves physical effort but not emotional investment. I’ve noticed before that breadcrumbers are happy to hookup, but they are less enthused about going out on a date. Believe me: They’ll bring their A-game to a hookup — mostly so that we’ll want to repeat the experience.

But they disappear again afterward. They’ll make some physical effort but will avoid emotional intimacy. It’s why a hookup is more appealing to them than an actual date. 

How to Respond

The potential partner who is happy to hookup but has excuses for why they can’t or won’t go out in public for an actual date is letting us know their level of interest. They aren’t bringing us relationship energy, and we’ve got to stop responding to physical energy with relationship energy of our own.

We need to learn to decline the hookup opportunities and insist on going out on actual dates that may or may not lead to physical intimacy. This challenges the breadcrumber to either step up to a relationship level or give up.

9. Bonding Over Shared Interests

It’s also possible that a breadcrumber will keep contact related to shared interests. This gives us the sense that we have something in common with them, but it also conveniently keeps us in their lives.

We might think it’s a true connection, but it’s really only in this one area and never broadens outside of it. However, it gives the breadcrumber an excuse to stay in contact that seems legitimate.

How to Respond

In truth, we might enjoy these conversations because they focus on an area of interest that we have, and we might not want to cut them off entirely. Instead, we may need to downgrade the connection.

It’s okay if we want to keep these conversations thoroughly in the friend zone — if we’re capable of doing that and holding the boundary. However, if it’s going to get our hopes up about this person, we’re better off severing the contact and no longer putting our energy into it.

We can enjoy this interest with other people who aren’t using it to lead us on. 

Final Thoughts: It’s All About Focusing on Their Pattern

Psychologist Mark Travers, in an article for Forbes, explained that one way to deal with breadcrumbing is to recognize the early warning signs. It’s important to pay attention to both words and actions in a relationship rather than seeing only what we want to see.

If we’re keeping our eyes open, we’ll notice when their level of engagement is not up to what we need. 

We can make a lot of assumptions about breadcrumbers. We can attribute this behavior to faults in their character. More realistically, many breadcrumbers come by their emotional availability through trauma.

However, instead of making excuses for them or trying to “save” them, we can accept that they cannot meet our needs — and our needs are valid.

It’s not unrealistic to want someone to communicate clearly, plan ahead, and show up for scheduled dates. It’s not asking for the moon to expect reciprocal engagement.

However, when we find that the person is dropping breadcrumbs but not actually meeting us where we are, we can stop following their trail. After all, we know where it leads. It ends in disappointment and heartbreak, not a relationship.

You VS the Breadcrumber

According to research, the experience of being breadcrumbed leaves us feeling lonelier and more dissatisfied with our lives. It makes sense. We’re bringing main character energy to relationships that keep casting us as the side piece. At a certain point, we have to realize that we deserve to be the main character in our own lives and to stop allowing incompatible partners to make us feel like side characters. 

As much as we want to get mad at the breadcrumbers, we need to take some personal responsibility for the way we engage with them even though they aren’t putting in the energy or effort that we need.

When we accept that the breadcrumber is just not that into us, we can move on and be available to partners who are more than happy to meet us where we are and engage at a relationship level. First, we have to get out of our own way. 

By recognizing these 9 signs of breadcrumbing in advance, we just might protect our hearts, save our time, and choose a path that might actually lead to a real relationship.

Why listen to me? I’m Crystal Jackson and I was a master’s level licensed therapist. I worked with couples and individuals and specialized in trauma recovery and empowerment. I now write content about relationships, self-improvement, and psychology. My work has been featured in large publications such as Elite Daily, Your Tango, Positively Positive, and Mamamia.


Friday 14th of July 2023

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