• 04/03/2023

What Is Breadcrumbing? Recognizing It at Work and in Relationships 

what is breadcrumbing

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Does your significant other wax romantic about spending your lives together — but hem and haw about setting a wedding date? Has your boss dangled the carrot of promotion in front of you, but five years later, you’re still in the same position performing the exact same duties day after mind-numbing day? You could have a case of breadcrumbing on your hands. 

Breadcrumbing can keep you stuck, preventing you from achieving your dreams. It’s also frustrating and crazy-making when someone else’s words don’t align with their actions. 

Recognizing this phenomenon and managing it is critical to positive psychological health. What is breadcrumbing? Here’s what to look for and how to deal with it. 

What Is Breadcrumbing? Definition and Examples 

At its simplest definition, breadcrumbing is the act of giving another person just enough interest, time and reward to keep them committed to your goals or visions without putting in much effort toward theirs. It’s the doctrine of doing the bare minimum, and people with narcissistic tendencies often employ it to manipulate others into giving them what they want while providing little or nothing in return. 

Imagine this: you couldn’t believe your good fortune when your “perfect person” showed up with a giant diamond only three months after you began dating. However, it’s now three years later, and you’ve yet to set a wedding date, and even your grandkid-hungry parents have stopped asking when you’ll stop waiting around, get hitched and start a family. 

When you mention the situation to your partner, it’s always “a bad time.” They have too much going on at work, are worried about finances or have other conflicts that interfere with making concrete plans. 

A woman stands behind a man with her arms around his shoulders.

Breadcrumbing can be intentional and or unconscious. For example, your partner may genuinely desire to keep you all for themselves while avoiding the contractual obligations marriage entails. However, they may also have a deeply held, if inaccurate, belief that everything has to be “perfect” before you say “I do.” You can work with the latter through therapy — you may have no choice with the former than to admit that you have different life goals and expectations. 

Breadcrumbing doesn’t restrict itself to personal relationships. It’s also common in the workplace. While it’s unlikely that your boss will admit to providing “just enough” salary and benefits to keep you employed, the very nature of the system demands that they push you for more while providing you with less to maximize their profit margins. 

Although treating their staff well is critical to long-term business success, some entrepreneurs never learn that lesson. As a result, those that work for them get stuck in dead-end jobs instead of thriving careers, doing little year after year besides contributing to another’s wealth-building, often to the detriment of their health and family relationships. 

What is Breadcrumbing in Dating?

A man and woman laughing.

While breadcrumbing can happen in any kind of relationship, it’s most common in romantic relationships, especially when first starting to date. Breadcrumbing in dating often looks like one person being hesitant to commit on some level.

You might experience love bombing early in your relationship, in which your date showers you with flowers, gifts and compliments every time they take you out. These actions may lead you to fall in love fast. However, you may begin to notice some red flags. They don’t return calls. They avoid introducing you to their friends and family. And they never want to “define the relationship.”

When you’re experiencing breadcrumbing in dating, you might feel confused about how the person really feels about you, no matter how many gifts or kind words they offer. If they never try to take the relationship beyond casual dating, they might be breadcrumbing you.

If you find yourself asking, “Is he breadcrumbing me?” look out for those common red flags.

Tips for Recognizing Breadcrumbing in Your Relationships 

Being on the receiving end of breadcrumbing can make you feel crazy. What can you trust? Does the other person mean what they say, or are they intentionally or unintentionally stringing you along, causing you to miss valuable opportunities? 

Your nagging sense of doubt is your first clue. If you have concerns that someone is breadcrumbing you, you need to address the situation to discern whether their behavior is intentional or representative of a deeper, unmet psychological need. This requires a deep, heart-to-heart talk. 

A man and woman look at each other.

Tips for Discussing Breadcrumbing With the One You Love 

Raising the issue of how another person’s behavior affects you often brings about strong emotions. The following rules will help you discuss breadcrumbing with your partner while minimizing hard feelings: 

  • Time it right: Set a time when you both feel relaxed and non-pressured. It’s generally best to have such discussions after the workday ends so that neither of you is distracted by your to-do lists. 
  • Use “I” language: Instead of saying, “You always talk about getting married but refuse to set a date,” try, “I’m confused, saddened and frustrated by not having a date set. My emotions about it distract me from other things and make me question how committed our relationship is.” By using “I” language, you avoid casting blame, which is certain to make the other person defensive. 
  • Know what you want: What if your partner responds, “Fine. How about April 27, 2030?” That’s several years in the future. Know your desired outcome before your discussion so you’re quick to respond, “I don’t find that acceptable — here’s what I had in mind.”  

A Special Note on Ultimatums 

You might wonder if you should give your partner an ultimatum. Here’s why doing so is a double-edged sword: If you issue one and fail to follow through, your words are as hollow and meaningless as your partner’s repeated promises of marriage. 

Your partner will come to understand that you don’t mean what you say, just as their words ring hollow to your ears. At this point, you face a choice. Does the rest of the relationship warrant staying, even if it means you may never walk down the aisle? 

Remember, sometimes, breadcrumbing is intentional. For example, people with narcissistic personality traits often delight in conflict and take genuine pleasure in prolonging the drama. They get the supply they crave — your attention, even if negative — while you keep dangling. 

Talk without actions to back up that speech means little. Feel free to give an ultimatum — if and only if you prepare to follow through. 

Tips for Dealing With Breadcrumbing at Work 

Two women sit at a table next to a window.

Breadcrumbing at work can be harder to recognize but every bit as nefarious in how it impacts your life. You could waste your career with a company that would let you go at a moment’s notice, sometimes not even giving you the courtesy of a personalized meeting, just an email. 

Unfortunately, the cutthroat competitive nature of the system makes it tough to find an employer who views you as more than a liability on their balance sheet. You have to be proactive about your career, asking the tough questions about your prospects and dusting off the old resume if your present ones seem dim. 

How? Follow these steps:

  • Request a one-on-one: You must meet with your supervisor to find out where you stand and your legitimate prospects with the company. It’s best to hold this meeting privately at a scheduled time, so your boss doesn’t feel rushed:
  • Ask: Where can I realistically see myself in this company in a year if I continue to meet and exceed expectations? What about three years? Five? Ten? 
  • Look for specifics: Be wary of milquetoast answers like “advance as high as you want” or “unlimited earning potential.” If that’s all you get, press forward with questions like, “What might my title or salary be? What is the typical range for someone in my role?” 

What can you do if you come out of your meeting with your suspicions of breadcrumbing confirmed? While the internet abounds with dramatic stories of people “rage-quitting” their jobs, such actions are only appropriate in extreme circumstances. 

Instead, start with gratitude — you now know where you stand. If you aren’t happy remaining where you are, it’s time to dust off the resume and get to work finding a new opportunity. 

What Is Breadcrumbing? 

Breadcrumbing occurs when someone else — usually an intimate partner or employer — gives you just enough to keep you committed. However, they never deliver the ultimate prize of marriage or the corner office. Rather than tell you that you have no chance, they keep you dangling. 

It hurts to experience this type of behavior, even if unintentional. Addressing the issue arms you with the information you need to make the best decision about your next steps. 

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