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Some people have a strange way of showing they care by sending you small messages out of the blue to get you to think about them.

However, as much as something like that might be endearing from a friend or loved one, what if the messages you were getting were out of alignment with what happened in the relationship?

What if you just had an argument or breakup, then they sent you a message a few days later asking if you want to go see a ballgame?

Breadcrumbing is a manipulative tactic to make sure you never get the person out of your mind. It is often used by people that want you to keep thinking of them, but don’t necessarily want a commitment with you.

In relationships, it can happen for many reasons but the main two are: 

1. The person wants to keep you as a hookup for sex

2. The person gets a narcissistic high knowing you are thinking of them

A sex-only relationship can be maintained if both are very clear that it’s only about sex and not about a monogamous, committed relationship. And  as long as there are no hurt feelings when one or both date other people.

But if someone is continually making you think of them through emails and texts, knowing that you want to be in a relationship with them (but they have no intention of committing to one with you), you are likely being led down a painful road of hope and disappointment.

I want to help you avoid a ridiculous game that some people will play. This behavior is mostly seen in romantic relationships and it typically happens while you’re breaking up or after the breakup.

If you were with someone for a while then you moved on, your partner might do something called breadcrumbing. This can happen outside of romantic relationships as well.

It’s a manipulation tactic. It’s a way to influence you to continue thinking about them so that they have some level of control over your life. This might be someone who doesn’t even want you back, but they want to keep you thinking about them. You could be just getting over them, just getting to the point where you’re feeling good about yourself and then suddenly, you get a text that says, “Hey, how are you doing?”

It’s completely unrelated to the breakup and it’s completely unrelated to the problems that you experienced. It’s just, “Hey, how’s it going?”

It’s such a non sequitur to get; it just happens out of the blue and it’s almost as if they know you’re starting to heal and starting to get over them. You might have even already gotten over them.

This happened when I was married. My wife would receive these messages every now and then from her ex and one of them was, “Happy Birthday.” And that’s okay, but that’s also kind of weird because they broke up and they stopped communicating. Then one day, he just sent out of the blue, “Happy birthday.”

I call that a feeler message. That’s someone who wants to reach out and feel what kind of reaction they’re going to get. But… he’s done that before, not just on her birthday. He did that on other occasions, usually months and months apart. He’d just send something out intending for him to pop up in her mind. I didn’t know it was called breadcrumbing back then, but now I know for sure it was because I know the pattern.

She also told me that he had many girlfriends that he would keep in touch with. This made me even more sure it was breadcrumbing because often, a breadcrumber will have many people that they’re keeping in touch with in that way. That’s not really keeping in touch, it’s just putting their image in your mind. It’s making you remember them in some way.

This is why it’s important sometimes when you have ended a relationship that you go “no contact.” You actually block them if they’ve been toxic in some way and you just don’t want to deal with them anymore. Block them from your phone and block them from your social media so that they can’t see anything that you’re doing and they can’t reach you.

Even if they’re serious about getting you back and they’ve gone through some healing, or they’ve gotten some epiphany, and they want you back but they can’t reach you, they’re going to seek you out. They’re going to try to find a way. You may not want them to, but someone who’s really serious, who really wants to get you back isn’t going to say,” Hey, how’s it going?”  They’re just not going to throw that out there and hope you bite. They’re fishing and I don’t want you to fall for that fishing, or in this case breadcrumbing.

I’m going to give you the definition that I have for breadcrumbing. This definition is located on the Resources page of this website which you can access if you have The M.E.A.N. Workbook. If you don’t own the workbook yet, read my definition of breadcrumbing below:

Breadcrumbing: When someone sends you emotionally engaging or even flirtatious texts, instant messages, voicemails, and other methods of communication in order to keep you thinking about them.

Breadcrumbing is sometimes used by emotional abusers to make sure you continue to be interested in them. They might want to have you as their backup plan for when their other relationships fail, or they don’t want to go too long without a relationship.

The communications you receive from a breadcrumber are often out of the blue but are created in a way to cause you to want to respond.

One example scenario is when you break up with someone and you’re hurt by the separation. Then out of the blue, weeks later, your ex sends you a message. “How did your interview go? Hope you got the job.”

This sounds like the encouraging and supportive words from someone that really cares about you. And upon reading it, you might even feel as if there could be a chance of reconciliation. However, there was no mention of the breakup or anything else that should have been mentioned – only a comment or question that makes you think they’re being nice.

Breadcrumbing keeps you guessing at what the other person’s intentions are. This is most often done with the intention of leading you on so that you stay interested in them. It can last months or even longer as you keep taking the bait.

Almost always, you usually end up with only the breadcrumbs, never the bread.

Breadcrumbers are just trying to keep you following their breadcrumbs. The behavior never ends.

Psychologists say that some people use breadcrumbing as a way to be in a relationship without the commitment and whenever they need a hookup (sex). If they need sex, they’re going to breadcrumb you and find out what you’re doing at eleven that night.

If you have ever had any emotional attachment to them, you might feel as if this might be a reconnection; that they’re reaching out because they actually care about you.

Breadcrumbing is not caring.

Breadcrumbing is evil. Maybe not evil, but it is manipulative.

It’s a mean thing to do to someone because the breadcrumber is trying to influence your mind instead of letting you tell them what you really want.

It’s a lot easier when someone says, “Hey, you know, we haven’t seen each other in a while and I thought about you. Let’s have sex.”

That would certainly be a bold comment, but at least it would be honest instead of putting those feelers out there, those breadcrumbs, hoping you follow it to the next one and to the next one.

I’m not saying breadcrumbing is always about sex. I had a client once that was breadcrumbed continually, and it led nowhere; it never led to their connection in any way. In fact, you’ll find that when you’re breadcrumbed, a lot of people that do that never want to commit to anything. They won’t want to commit to even seeing you at a certain time.

A lot of them are just making sure that they are always on your mind. As long as you’re thinking about them, they get a high from it. It fulfills them in some bizarre way.

Yes, there’s a certain percentage of people that do this just because they want that hookup. Then there are others that get some sort of narcissistic supply from it – some sort of high knowing that you’re thinking of them. It can hurt!

If you’ve been hurt by someone in your past, and you have thoughts that there could be reconciliation with them someday, and they’re doing this stupid thing called breadcrumbing where they just reach out to you out of the blue with some random comment or random question, it’s going to feel like a light in the dark woods.

You’re probably going to gravitate toward the light as it feels so much better than the dark.

A lot of people are attracted to breadcrumbing like a moth to a flame. The breadcrumber knows this!

They know that they are still thought of. And what they’re doing is making sure that you continue to think about them over and over again so that you can never find peace or closure in yourself.

Closure might mean letting them go. If you let them go, that’s too painful for them to deal with. They don’t want to be seen as the bad guy. They don’t want to be seen as the person that is not attractive, or the one that is repelling to you in some way, so what they’ll do instead is send out these little breadcrumbing texts, voicemails, or messages on social media, just to make you remember them and see them as a nice person.

If you’ve ever been breadcrumbed or you’re being breadcrumbed, don’t see it as a caring thing.

Breadcrumbing is not a caring thing. It is not healthy behavior from someone who claims to care about you.

Someone who loves you will work on themselves. They will tell you, “Look, I’m sorry for the way I showed up in the relationship and I’m working on myself.” If you had that kind of relationship where the other person wasn’t treating you well or was just really odd or toxic in some way, you just had to get away from them.

When you leave someone like that, and they look inward and they think, “Wow! What did I do to ruin this relationship? What am I doing now? How am I screwing things up in my life?”  They might even send you a message that says. “I’m so sorry for how I showed up in the relationship, I totally understand I need to work on myself.”

I find that a very loving thing to do. That’s called letting go. That’s called letting someone be. Letting someone follow the path that they want to follow and not littering the path with breadcrumbs by telling them to keep thinking about them. That’s a toxic form of influence and manipulation. They’re trying to steer your thoughts into liking them or loving them again. Doing that is very coercive.

If you actually follow the breadcrumbs to them and you get back together, it almost never works. It almost never lasts because the person doing the breadcrumbing isn’t working on themselves. All they’re doing is working on you,  to convince you to come back to them or at least keep you thinking about them. If it’s not about getting you back, it’s about some sort of narcissistic high they want to be on.

The reason I wanted to write about this today is because it’s an easy trap to fall into. It could be a gray area where you might think that they reached out a month later and just said, “Hey, how’s it going? Just thinking about you.” It might seem innocent but you have to watch for the signs. You have to understand where this is going.

In fact, your response to something like that could be,” What do you want?” That’s just a simple question, right?

“What do you want?”

Then that person might say, “Well, I was thinking about you and just wondering how you’re doing.”

You can respond with another question. “Why?”

“Well, you know, I’m kind of lonely, and I was thinking about us.”

“What were you thinking about us?”

Keep asking, and keep digging, because what they’re probably doing is trying to get an emotional response from you. They’re trying to get the one thing they want to hear, “I was hoping you’d reach out. I miss you too.”

Even if they’re not breadcrumbing you and their intentions are true and pure, asking questions is a good way to put someone on the spot so that the truth comes out. Someone who really cares about you is going to say, “I totally get why you’re asking all these questions. I totally get where you’re going. I know. It’s been a month, and we haven’t talked and suddenly I’m just calling you or texting you out of the blue. I totally get it. I just want to share something with you.”

And then they’ll go into some deep revelations or deep insights that they’ve come up with. Someone who cares about you is going to share it that way.

Someone who’s trying to manipulate you will probably get angry. They’ll probably say, “What’s with all these questions? Why are you asking all these questions?” They don’t want to dive in. They don’t want to get into that. They don’t want to make it about what’s going on inside of them. They want to make it about coercing you into keeping them in mind. Coercing you into a hookup. Coercing you into continuing to think about them even though you’re trying to move on.

I want you to be aware of these games. Don’t fall for these games! You’re a lot better than that. You’re a lot wiser than that. If you haven’t been wise to these games, you are now and you definitely deserve better than breadcrumbing. You deserve someone who’s going to be upfront, honest, and will just tell it like it is, even if the truth hurts. In my opinion, the best kind of truth is when you hear truth that hurts. Otherwise, when I hear something that makes me feel really good, I question if it’s true.

This applies if you’ve had a breakup, or you had a toxic relationship and then your ex comes along and says, “I miss you so much; you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” I question their motives because it was so toxic. “Why are you saying this? This is really odd and out of context here because if we look at the past, whether it was six months or six years, this isn’t how you showed up, and suddenly you’re this way? 

Question that, and stay inquisitive.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Paul Colaianni is a Behavior and Relationship Coach, and the host of The Overwhelmed Brain and Love and Abuse podcasts.

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This is a horrible thing to go through, ive had it from someone who claimed me to be the only woman he’s ever really loved for years, back and forth on and off with his wife. Every time she stopped putting out with him back he came to me always claiming to be desperately unhappy with her,break up imminent, just doesn’t live her etc. A few months ago he went all vague on me, stopped his usual persistent constancy and since then I’ve had breadcrumbs every few weeks, each one tells me how much he’s missing me, loves me and no one else, I reply because there’s been no official break up or ‘ending it’ talk and all his excuses come across as plausible. I’ve just been left with waiting for the next crumb. Its cruel, especially when you’ve asked for answers and they are actually being ignored. Cruel and emotionally abusive. Life is too short for this bull crap, if someone really loves you they’ll do all they can to put you in their life with a definite clear description of your place so you’re not confused, but to keep you hanging on not being able to move forward is sick and selfish. Its very hard to see it at first when they’ve given half hearted excuses, you actually make excuses for these people because you don’t want to admit you’re being played and left dangling, but without actions to match that is exactly what they’re doing, playing cat and mouse.

Paul Colaianni

So glad that you shared this here for others to learn from what you went through. And I’m so sorry you had to go through this. Breadcrumbing keeps you hanging and waiting all the time. There is no end. I’m glad you see through this game and wish you much strength and healing as you move forward! Thanks again for sharing.


There are many resources on ghosting and breadcrumbing for dating and casual relationships. How do you deal with this from a long term relationship? What kind of person could be so cruel to a partner they lived with for years? As much as I read and learn I still feel like I’m drowning from shock and pain of it.

Paul Colaianni

So sorry you are dealing with this. In the long-term relationship, I think it’s important to find out their end game. If you are being breadcrumbed, they are keeping you in their life for a particular reason. Perhaps they think they can have their cake and eat it too(?) Meaning, “If this next phase of my life doesn’t work out, I want to have a backup plan.” In other words, this often happens because they want a “backup plan,” meaning *you* are that backup plan. As awful as that feels, it’s also a wake-up call.

When I say you need to find out their end game, that can look like this: “Just tell me, do you want a relationship with me or not? You keep reaching out, but we’re broken up. So what is your purpose of keeping in touch with me?”

Then when they answer, which might be something like, “I still care about you. I want to stay in touch with you and know how you are…” or whatever, this is the time to be direct. Don’t fall for that because you are being treated like a backup plan. To get out of that, you might need to say, “Look, we’re either in a relationship together or we’re not. If we’re not, then stop reaching out to me. I am not ready and I may never be ready to just be friends. I’m hurt over the breakup and need to heal and move on. When you reach out to me, my healing stops because I start to get hopeful. So, if you really care about me, you’ll leave me alone and let me heal.”

If they give you some other excuse to stay in touch, tell them you’ll block them if they don’t honor your wishes.

These are suggestions, of course. I don’t know the full story, but I’ve often found breadcrumbing can be “enabled.” That means you can inadvertently allow it to continue by your actions and responses. If you respond with kind words, then it will continue. If you are more stern, maybe it will stop, maybe it won’t.

You may want the relationship again, but could be torturing yourself by allowing the connection to exist. If there is no forward progress, there will be no forward progress. That means if they wanted the relationship with you again, it would have happened or started to happen already. If they’re just breadcrumbing, then you are being mistreated.

Maybe you’re afraid to let go. That often happens and is often the reason the enabling continues. But would you rather it be like this forever? You are *not* a backup plan and you deserve to be treated better. Sometimes you have to show people how you want to be treated. And when they don’t listen, yes, they’ll likely disappear from your life. If you don’t want them to disappear, I encourage you to set a date in the future where you promise yourself to close this door forever and move on. i.e., “If there’s no forward progress toward reconciliation on X day, I’ll block and move on.”

That’s sometimes a huge commitment to yourself because it means acceptance. When you learn to accept that you can’t have what you really want, it starts the healing process.

Stay strong. You will get through this.

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