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Breadcrumbing: The dating trend that leaves you starving for more affection

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LA Post: Breadcrumbing: The dating trend that leaves you starving for more affection
February 26, 2024
Nahal Garakani - LA Post

The damaging dating phenomenon labeled as "toxic breadcrumbing" leaves individuals struggling between optimism and despair. Breadcrumbing involves pretending to be romantically interested by sporadically offering attention that ultimately leads to nothing substantial. This manipulative conduct compels targets to fixate on someone incapable of making a genuine commitment.

While breadcrumbing can happen in other contexts, it most commonly occurs in modern dating, where technology makes offering fleeting spurts of affection easy. The psychology behind why it works involves “intermittent reinforcement.” You keep trying for more when rewards come randomly, like from a slot machine. 

Breadcrumbing takes an insidious emotional toll. Targets feel anxious, confused, sad, angry and unworthy. They may lower relationship standards or repeatedly pursue familiar painful patterns. Confronting the breadcrumber allows correction, but ending contact helps escape an addictive cycle.   

Experts say recognizing breadcrumbing is key to understanding your reasons for accepting it. Seeking therapy aids this self-work and models healthy relating. Directly communicate mutual intentions if you breadcrumb while just dating around.   

 According to experts, breadcrumbing leaves victims torn between feeling hopeful and hopeless about a potential partner’s affection. The harmful dating behavior, which refers to feigning romantic interest through sporadic acts of attention that never materialize into anything meaningful for the recipient, is a form of manipulation that keeps targets focused on someone unable to commit to them.

While breadcrumbing can happen in other interpersonal contexts like friendships or at work, it most commonly occurs in modern dating, where technology makes it easy for people to offer just little spurts of affection or connection through texts, social media interactions, or chatting apps. 

The psychology behind understanding why breadcrumbing manages to keep someone hoping for more positive attention has to do with “intermittent reinforcement.” The principle explains how the unpredictable delivery of rewards, as with a slot machine, drives addictive behaviors. People hold out in hopes that the next pull will bring a win.  

Beyond the psychological trap, breadcrumbing also takes an insidious emotional toll on the targets of the behavior. Recipients report feeling anxious, confused, sad, angry and unworthy after extended breadcrumbing relationships where intention remains ambiguous and follow through on plans are rare.  

As a result, targets may unfortunately lower their standards for what they consider a healthy relationship. They may also repeatedly pursue partners that exhibit familiar painful emotional patterns from their past. Confronting the breadcrumber directly allows them to correct their behavior and show it was a mistake if the relationship is important enough to save. 

However, when ending contact becomes necessary for targets to escape the addictive pull of breadcrumbing, recovering can be difficult.  You can handle breadcrumbing by consulting a counselor, journaling, and ending the relationship when you know it has no future. 

Experts emphasize recognizing breadcrumbing as the first and most important step. Doing so allows targets to identify root reasons for accepting such maltreatment, which builds the path to improving self-esteem. Seeking therapy often aids this personal development work.  

The therapeutic process further models what consistent, accountable and caring relating looks like for targets unfamiliar with healthy relationships. If breadcrumbing unintentionally while casually dating, experts recommend clearly communicating expectations for a mutually noncommittal connection with an appropriate match.

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