We’ve all been there. After sleepless nights poring over your resume, three rounds of interviews, and trembling hands waiting for the call, your phone rings—and the recruiter says it’s good news.

…Well, fairly good news. It’s between you and one other candidate. ‘You’d be down for one more interview, right?’

Right. Except the night before, the recruiter calls back. ‘It’s bad news. They went with the other candidate.’

Noncommitment is on the rise. But not only in our careers, but in our relationships as well. To the point where the behavior’s incurred its own disparaging term: breadcrumbing.

Breadcrumbing is when someone gives you just enough attention to keep your hopes alive—before invariably dashing them after you’ve invested time and emotion into getting to know them. They leave an enticing trail of breadcrumbs surely leading to some majestic feast—but when you get there, the table’s bare, the pantry’s been raided, and there’s just a lonely can of beans in the corner.

In those halcyon times before social media, breadcrumbing was just called stringing someone along. It was rightly frowned upon, and more importantly was actually pretty hard to do. Why? Because while phone and email were already fundamental modes of communication, our interpersonal relationships with new people were still mediated primarily in person. Telling someone to their face you were interested when you weren’t may have been easy in the moment, but you still had to be honest sooner or later—and that interaction would probably be face-to-face.

But since the dawn of the age of social media, the hyper-convenience of instant messaging, not to mention blocking, have abetted a slow but steady sprinkling of breadcrumbs between hopeful singles and the uninterested objects of their desires. But such is our basic wiring that, no matter how commonplace breadcrumbing becomes, it still hurts like hell — especially when you thought you’d met someone special, perhaps even the person you’d spend the rest of your life with.

So if you’ve been the victim of breadcrumbing—or indeed you’ve found yourself doing it and want to be more honest—you have my sympathy. This is a deeply embedded cultural problem that begets only more malaise with the dating scene. That’s why today I’m doing my bit to break the cycle, by exploring where breadcrumbing comes from, why it’s so painful when we’re led on romantically, and how to move on when you’ve been spurned by someone you’ve fallen for.

Why is noncommitment on the rise?

Let’s return to the analogy of job hunting, as it’s such a useful illustration of how breadcrumbing has become so widespread.

A few months into Covid, an increasing number of employers admitted that their hiring processes had become significantly more drawn out, despite the fact the talent pool was expanding as more and more people reflected on their priorities and left unfulfilling careers in the wake of the transition to remote working. Yet candidates didn’t take this breadcrumbing lying down:

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

Many candidates likened this professional breadcrumbing specifically to being led on romantically. A year later in 2021, 31% of Americans described themselves as being on the internet “almost constantly.” As we spend an ever-expanding proportion of our lives online, noncommitment is being more and more normalized. On dating apps, the seductiveness of breadcrumbing (or just plain old ghosting) is undeniable, and mirrors a culture that’s quick, transactional, and convenience-oriented. This is the gamification of dating.

How does breadcrumbing affect singles’ wellbeing?

Research illustrates how damaging it can be to keep someone on “standby.” One study found that breadcrumbing can trigger addictive behaviors because it employs reinforcers that stimulate obsessive tendencies, including praise, likes, flirting, photos, and positive messages out of the blue. The basic motivator behind this behavior is simple: anticipation of reward.

Moreover, the researchers showed that breadcrumbing can lead to an abject sense of helplessness in those on the receiving end. In fact, in this sense breadcrumbing is even worse than ghosting, because while an abrupt and unexpected end to all communication is upsetting, it’s a single incident, a marker of before and after—whereas breadcrumbing lures the recipient into a lengthy and disorienting period of uncertainty and unpredictability—which of course is further compounded by the inevitable ghosting.

As if that weren’t enough, breadcrumbing also inculcates deep loneliness in singles, and again the effect is more pronounced than in those who have experienced ghosting but without the breadcrumbing. Researchers at UCLA found that even when the “relationship” is over, people retain an unshakeable sense that they’re being left out of others’ social activities in general. “Those who experience breadcrumbing remain in a ‘standby’ state with time, which can often make victims feel excluded. So compared to ghosting it’s suffered as a more intense ostracism experience, which is why it has more negative effects.”

How can I get over having been breadcrumbed?

In a world of noncommitment, it’s easy to withdraw, write off every potential romantic interest as flaky before you’ve even got to know them, and condemn ourselves to a lifetime of being alone. That’s totally understandable: If you’ve been breadcrumbed even once, never mind more, you probably feel exploited, manipulated, even betrayed. Worse, it can lead to us becoming breadcrumbers ourselves: ‘Well, everyone else is doing it, and I’ve had it done to me. That’s just how it is these days, right?’ Well—yes and no. Yes in the sense that breadcrumbing is a ubiquitous problem in today’s society—but no in the sense that you can—and ultimately have to—rise above it, be the bigger person, and endeavor to learn from the experience.

Start by simply calling it out. If you’re still in touch with your breadcrumber, explain to them—calmly, but in no uncertain terms—why their actions have hurt you, and why you feel led on and disrespected. You may find this cathartic—plus if they take your words on board then you’ve reduced the behavior in the world by a tiny amount, if only by a single crumb. Open up to your loved ones, write your thoughts down, talk to your therapist. Expressing your emotions in any form is better than keeping them bottled up, and can be surprisingly helpful even if it doesn’t feel like it will beforehand.

Finally: Don’t blame yourself. Our culture is one of easy wins, quick fixes, and performative romance. Real love demands risk. So treasure your integrity. If we want to build something beautiful with someone new, at some point we must all put our faith in the the unknown. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off—but never castigate yourself for being a person willing to take the leap.

Maclynn is a boutique, multi-award-winning introductions agency with offices in California, New York, New Jersey, and London. We’re world-renowned for bringing together highly compatible singles within our vast network of attractive, intelligent professionals, and our matchmakers are relationship experts in their own right. Get in touch today, and prepare for genuinely meaningful dating—just like you deserve.