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How to Tell if You’re Being Breadcrumbed in a Relationship, Friendship or at Work

‘Breadcrumbing’ is a subtle manipulation technique used to create a one-sided relationship. Here’s how to spot it.

There are few things worse than feeling disappointed. The big opportunity you were made to get excited about suddenly evaporates, or the new relationship you thought was really gaining traction vanishes into thin air.

If these scenarios sound familiar to you, it’s likely you’ve been ‘breadcrumbed’.

Hansel and Gretel associations aside, put simply, ‘breadcrumbing’ involves leading someone on, and keeping their hopes up through small and superficial acts of interest. A breadcrumber might be flirtatious, complimentary or seem engaged with you at first, but will ultimately end up disappointing you with empty promises and emotional abandonment.

And breadcrumbing isn’t just limited to relationships. It can happen in the workplace, within families, friendships and on social media.

However, the good news is that there are some key signs that make it easy to spot.

Writing for Psychology Today, communication professor Preston Ni shares the five most obvious signs of breadcrumbing, and what to do if you experience them.

The relationship is like an emotional rollercoaster

If someone in your life is constantly blowing hot and cold, that can take an emotional toll. “Those at the receiving end of breadcrumbing often experience an emotional roller coaster: disappointed most of the time, with occasional false hope, along with confusion and self-doubt,” writes Li.

He suggests that often victims of breadcrumbing begin to question and blame themselves after experiencing the neglect, wondering what they did to provoke the other person’s distance.

You find yourself changing your behavior when looking for the next ‘crumb’

As humans, we crave validation, but if you find yourself dramatically altering how you feel or act to ‘stay on side’ with someone else, it’s an indication of a very one-sided relationship.

As Li puts it: “In many cases, breadcrumbing may affect relational dependence, where the victim keeps looking for the breadcrumber to dangle the next morsel of false hope to maintain the illusion of positive relationship.

“Some victims of breadcrumbing may try harder to please and prove their worth, without receiving genuine acknowledgement and reciprocation in return.”

You always seem to be waiting for something from the other person

When you’re being breadcrumbed, because you’re so dependent on the other person’s whim, you might often find yourself waiting – for the breadcrumber to text or call, to follow through on a long-held promise, or to finally show commitment in a relationship. This is never a nice experience and can lead to greater feelings of rejection or inadequacy.

“In this waiting game, an unhealthy and inequitable dynamic is created. The breadcrumber holds the power of attention, acceptance and approval, while the victim surrenders their power of priority, independence and self-respect,” explains Li.

You know you’re being used and feel manipulated – but you’re in denial

Deep down, many victims of breadcrumbing know that they are being led on and strung along, says Li. “However, some may continue to stay in the relationship to avoid facing the painful truth that the breadcrumber really doesn’t care, and for fear of losing false security.”

If you find yourself in this situation, Li advises asking yourself: “Do I deserve better than the way I’m being treated in this relationship?”

The answer is almost definitely yes, and it may be time to consider distancing yourself unless healthier boundaries can be negotiated.

You feel lonely and empty within the relationship.

Feeling let down by someone you care about is hard to experience. According to Li, the outcome of all of the conditions above is that the victim of persistent breadcrumbing often feels loneliness, discouragement, depression, and perhaps most of all, emptiness.

The key is to seek relationships with true substance, that allow you to be yourself without conditions, with people who have your back no matter what.