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The Emotional Pain of Being Breadcrumbed

Perhaps more damaging than ghosting, being strung along can make us feel lonely.

Key points

  • Being strung along by others, or "breadcrumbing," is increasingly occurring with employers as well as in the world of dating.
  • Breadcrumbing causes a sense of helplessness, a lower quality of life, and the loneliness of feeling excluded.
  • To recover, people can call it out, reach out to trustworthy people and aim to proactively uphold their own integrity.
Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

It’s likely we’ve heard plaintive tales from our brave, exhausted, and breadcrumbed friends: “They told me I was their top candidate for six weeks, but I never got hired.” “He checked in every Friday for two months, but I was never invited to meet in person.” “I thought I’d gotten the contract by the way they lavished praise on me, but it turned out to be a big nothing-burger.” Being strung along by people—breadcrumbing—is on the rise in the domains of dating and friendship as well as in our careers.

“Breadcrumbing” first emerged as a dating term around 2010. According to the Urban Dictionary, it occurs “When a guy or girl gives someone just enough attention to keep their hope of a relationship alive.” This noncommittal behavior is also known as “Hansel and Greteling,” based on the fairy tale of the lost children leaving breadcrumbs to find their way home. Before social media arrived, most of us knew this concept as “stringing someone along” or “leading someone on”—a cold, transactional ploy that people of strong moral character would never attempt. But not now.

The conveniences of social media have abetted a slippery slope of noncommittal behaviors that range from teasing little nuggets of interest all the way to mean-spirited deception. Being played or defending ourselves against being played has plagued our relationships even more since the pandemic struck and our commitments became fraught with uncertainty and 180-degree reversals.

Noncommittal Behaviors Are on the Rise

Those of us who were job hunting in 2020 or early 2021 may have wondered why it was taking far too long to hear back after our interview(s). If we thought more employers were breadcrumbing candidates last year, we are probably correct. More employers did intentionally delay the hiring process in 2020, according to a US survey conducted in November 2020 by Robert Half International of more than 2100 senior managers and 1000 workers.

Key findings on breadcrumbing based on the Robert Half International study:

  • 33 percent of employers admitted to taking more time to hire people despite a deeper talent pool.

If candidates found out that they were breadcrumbed by an employer, they responded in the following ways:

  • 49 percent ghosted the employer
  • 41 percent blacklisted the company
  • 27 percent vented on social media
  • 26 percent posted negative comments on review sites

Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half, shared a reason why it was taking longer to hear back from employers post-interview and agreed that breadcrumbing feels like being led on. “The hiring manager or HR contact may be reaching out periodically just to ensure a candidate is aware they are still in the running.” He added that employers were using delay tactics more after March 2020. “When the pandemic hit when it did, these actions by employers became even more pronounced since they were so contrary to what job seekers have become accustomed to over the years.”

And in the domain of dating, sadly, breadcrumbing as well as ghosting and other noncommittal behaviors are increasingly becoming normalized as Americans spend more time online. Quite bluntly, the impersonal act of breadcrumbing is seductively convenient (and feels more guilt-free) to employ on an app. More Americans than ever before are constantly on the internet, up to 31 percent in 2021 from 21 percent in 2015, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, 44 percent are constantly online. If nearly half of those under the age of 50 are online all the time, then we can assume that more noncommittal behaviors are going to reflect the quick, stealthy, transactional culture of social media. In short, we could just call it the gamification of dating. And it’s easy to breadcrumb someone if there are no consequences for it.

The Impact of Breadcrumbing

Fortunately, arriving right on time to tackle the increase in breadcrumbing, alarming new research is emerging to reveal just how damaging this behavior really is. Hopefully, these studies can help us understand what we can do to stand up to these trends.

A couple of preliminary studies on noncommittal behaviors, published since 2020, take a close look at the increasing act of keeping people “on standby” for far too long and for selfish reasons. Early research shows common effects of being breadcrumbed including a sense of helplessness, lower quality of life, and the loneliness of feeling left out.

One eye-opening study of 625 young adults aged 18 to 40 helps to explain the distress of being breadcrumbed. The research compared the particular effects of being ghosted and breadcrumbed and indicated that being breadcrumbed had more negative effects on mental health than other noncommittal behaviors.

The early findings of this study point out the particular damage of breadcrumbing:

  • Breadcrumbing triggers addictive behaviors. Breadcrumbing employs reinforcers that stimulate addictive behavior (suspensefully waiting for likes, random messages, praise, encouraging comments, flirtatious texts, and photos). The basic motivator of this behavior is the anticipation of the reward.
  • Helplessness. Breadcrumbing may cause a greater sense of helplessness than ghosting. Compared to ghosting when the relationship suddenly and completely ends, breadcrumbing lures the recipient into a long, extended, and continuous situation of being on standby, living with unpredictability and uncertainty while waiting for the breadcrumber to make a commitment.
  • Loneliness. Breadcrumbing, by comparison, prolongs and extends a lonely period of feeling left out and being excluded from the breadcrumber’s social activities. The recipients of breadcrumbing in this study reported higher levels of loneliness on the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

The researchers asserted that the damage of breadcrumbing had some similarities with ghosting in terms of rejection and loneliness, but they pointed to the seriousness of prolonged ostracism. “... those who experience breadcrumbing remain in a 'standby' state with time, which can often make victims feel excluded. So, compared to ghosting, it is suffered as a more intense ostracism experience, which is why it has more negative effects on mental health.”

The humiliating experience of being breadcrumbed—getting hooked on the breadcrumber’s reactions, being stuck in helplessness, and feeling excluded and lonely—makes breadcrumbing a particularly cruel practice. Even though some breadcrumbers may not be intentionally manipulative (some are indecisive or overwhelmed by too many choices) the resulting damage needs to be further understood and researched.

In a world with noncommittal behaviors increasing around us, being a survivor of repeated breadcrumbing can lead to isolation when we realize we have been betrayed, manipulated, or downright exploited one too many times. It would be understandable to want to withdraw or avoid the interest of a new friend, date, or employer. Or we could easily fall into the pitfalls of being as callous, indifferent, or unkind as others have been to us. Though we need to arm ourselves with thick skin, vigilance, discretion, and clear boundaries, we could too easily isolate ourselves in unhealthy ways. Or worse—just stop trusting others.

Helpful Suggestions for Recovering from a Breadcrumbing Experience

Call it out. Call it out by name and condemn the practice. Talk with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. They have probably been breadcrumbed at some point in their own lives as well. Or write in your journal. If it is helpful, feasible, and safe, call it out briefly and succinctly with the breadcrumber. “What you did was wrong.” “Breadcrumbing is disrespectful.”

See the big picture of how breadcrumbing is happening to almost everyone. Blaming ourselves for being duped or strung along can, unfortunately, lead to more loneliness. We can compassionately accept (and learn from) what may have made us vulnerable to the breadcrumber, but we are not to blame for being played. It is important to understand how cultural forces and social media enable the wrong people to prey on us when we have strong (and legitimate) needs or great passions.

Treasure the people you trust and reflect on their trustworthy traits. Hopefully, there is at least one person you know whom you consider trustworthy. Maybe you can tell that person why you appreciate their trustworthiness (especially after surviving the deception of a breadcrumber).

Treasure your own integrity and trustworthiness. Even if you’ve been breadcrumbed, you can hold onto your own integrity and moral character (and might sleep better at night because you kept your word).

As someone who was unmercifully breadcrumbed in an exciting new business relationship and suffered the consequences of sharing too much of my intellectual property, I can attest to the serenity of living with integrity. When all else fails in a world rife with noncommittal behavior, at least I have my character to hold onto.

I’ll conclude with a few inspiring quotes that celebrate our integrity.

“When all is said and done, all anyone has left is their integrity at the core… Don’t give that away too.” —Solange Nicole

“If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” —Gordon Eadie

“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.” —C.S. Lewis

Facebook image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

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