“Breadcrumbing” is a contemporary dating term which refers to leading someone on when you have no intention of committing to them. It is characterized by inconsistent, sporadic communication—or “crumbs” of attention and affection—to maintain the interest of the other person.

Often, people may find themselves settling for breadcrumbs of love, hoping to one day have the loving relationship that they truly want. A “breadcrumber,” taking advantage of their trust, leaves a trail of crumbs for them to follow, which rarely leads to such a relationship.

Breadcrumbing takes a toll on the psychological well-being of those experiencing it, including trust issues in future relationships, social withdrawal, feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, shame, low self-esteem, loneliness, difficulty being emotionally vulnerable and even symptoms of depression. To prevent such emotional upheaval, it is essential to gain insight into the process of breadcrumbing.

A 2023 study analyzed the underlying patterns of breadcrumber’s behavior and uncovered five interconnected stages of breadcrumbing. These included:

  1. Charm
  2. Leading on
  3. Incongruence
  4. Avoiding emotional investment
  5. Commitment uncertainty

Here is a deeper look at the five stages of breadcrumbing behavior.

1. They Invite You In With Charm

Breadcrumbing often begins innocently enough, with an initial spark of attraction and connection between two individuals. This stage involves the excitement of discovering common interests, shared values and mutual attraction. Both parties display genuine interest in getting to know one another.

The breadcrumber in this stage may be flirtatious and generously compliment their target. It appears to be a promising start to what seems like a potentially meaningful connection.

But, according to a 2020 study, it sometimes means that a breadcrumber is just ‘love-bombing’ or being overly affectionate with their partner to gain control. Together, these actions create an addictive gateway that leads the other partner into an uncertain future.

2. They Keep You Hooked Under False Pretenses

As the relationship progresses, the initial enthusiasm wanes for the breadcrumber, and their behavior takes a deceptive turn. There is a “slow fade” in their communication, where they start to withdraw their attention and affection in subtle, but noticeable ways.

Text messages become less frequent, phone calls are shorter and plans to meet in person are postponed. This stage is characterized by a growing sense of confusion and insecurity in the person being breadcrumbed, who naturally wonders what went wrong.

Breadcrumbers can also provide false hope about the future of the relationship and suggest that it means more to them than it actually does. In some cases, they might prematurely declare their love, creating further confusion for their counterpart. This highlights the manipulative aspect of breadcrumbing, where one may continue “playing the part” of an interested lover to keep the other engaged without any intention of genuine commitment.

3. Their Behavior Is Hot And Cold

In this stage, breadcrumbing becomes more evident as the person on the receiving end begins to understand that something is wrong. The breadcrumber could shower a partner with affectionate messages and promises of a future together one day and disappear without an explanation the next.

According to a 2022 study, considering alternative partners in a monogamous context could be one of the reasons for a breadcrumber’s ‘ambivalence’ or hot and cold behavior toward their current partner.

Due to the noticeable incongruence between their words and actions, their partner might become suspicious of their true intentions. For example, they might sense that their partner is seeking only physical intimacy, while avoiding deeper emotional connection. However, the target can remain trapped in this dynamic, clinging to the potential of a real relationship.

4. They Avoid Emotional Intimacy At All Costs

Breadcrumbing is often reflected in the avoidance of emotional intimacy. In this stage, the perpetrator begins investing even less time and effort in the relationship, treating their partner as an option rather than a priority.

The breadcrumber can become indifferent towards their partner, avoid confrontation and evade responsibility for their actions. Online communication can especially facilitate this behavior, allowing them to hide their true feelings behind a screen and continue presenting a false image to pacify their partner.

5. They Steer Clear Of “The Relationship Talk”

In the last stage of breadcrumbing, the perpetrator will do everything in their power to avoid commitment. They might frequently make excuses and delay conversations around commitment or defining the relationship.

In some cases, when confronted about the relationship’s status, they may resort to gaslighting behavior by belittling their partner for wanting commitment or “always talking about their feelings.” They might also deny any prior commitment-like statements and plant self-doubt in their partner’s mind, saying things like: “I never said I was ready for a relationship” or “I like how things are right now. Why can’t we just have a nice time?

As a result of this emotional rollercoaster, the target eventually reaches a breaking point. A 2020 study found that experiencing breadcrumbing leads to reduced satisfaction with life, and greater feelings of helplessness and loneliness.

Consequently, the target comes to the painful realization that their relationship is never going to change and that the breadcrumber is not interested in a committed, meaningful connection.


If this sounds familiar to you, there are ways to escape this cycle. To start with, seeking social and mental health support and engaging in self-reflection about your relationship patterns can help attract partners that are more emotionally available. Remember, you do not deserve to be loved in bits and pieces. You deserve to be loved fully.


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