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What is Breadcrumbing?

How breadcrumbing works and ways to combat it in co-parenting.

Co-parents can often tell that their communication and shared parenting efforts may be problematic or high conflict when their separation or divorce is finalized. Others can begin co-parenting on more pleasant terms once they decide their romantic relationship is over. In either case, co-parents typically have a gut feeling or expectation of how their communications and interactions will work.

For some parents, however, their co-parenting relationship can be filled with ups and downs that leave them constantly questioning the nature of their situation. The feeling typically depends on how well or poorly interactions go with their child's other parent, which can bring hope or discouragement. Whether on purpose or by accident, co-parents may engage in breadcrumbing, a manipulation tactic that negatively impacts parents and children involved in the shared parenting situation.

How does breadcrumbing work?

Sometimes referred to interchangeably with gaslighting, breadcrumbing is where one person in a relationship engages in interactions that resemble little "breadcrumbs" of positive or cooperative engagement. Whether it's a positive talk or a peaceful in-person meeting, each breadcrumb contributes to a long-term effort of stringing along the recipient. This pattern of misleading positive attention leads the person on the receiving end to develop and maintain false hope that the relationship can and will improve.

Is my co-parent breadcrumbing me?

Breadcrumbing often happens in dating and other romantic relationships. Still, co-parent breadcrumbing is a common variety that can and does happen to parents after a divorce or separation. Whether it's due to their lingering feelings or desire to create a high-conflict co-parenting situation, an ex's hostile intentions or honest cluelessness can lead them to breadcrumb their child's other parent.

For those who engage in shared parenting with a suspected breadcrumber, some of the signs may include:

  • Inconsistent communication
  • Irregular interest in conversation
  • Failure to make or commit to plans
  • Considerable lapses in communication
  • Lack of initiative to explain gaps
  • Communication during abnormal times

Why do people choose to breadcrumb?

When it comes to breadcrumbers, their intentions and reasonings can vary. For some people, narcissistic traits or tendencies for harassment drive them to create and maintain one-sided relationships. In contrast, others unknowingly engage in breadcrumbing without realizing the impact of their actions. Whether it's intentional or not, a variety of factors can contribute to a person engaging in breadcrumbing.

While it's not a comprehensive list, some of the reasons why a person may breadcrumb others can include:

  • Fear of commitment
  • Low self-esteem
  • Insecure attachment style
  • Lingering post-separation feelings
  • Lack of emotional maturity
  • Conflict-avoidant dispositions

What are the effects of breadcrumbing?

Thanks to the inherent meaning in its name, breadcrumbing seems like an insignificant thing that serves as an annoyance more than anything else. The bleak reality of breadcrumbing is that the seemingly harmless trail of positive interactions and false hope can negatively impact a person's emotional state if it strings someone along for long periods.

Dealing with breadcrumbing often leads people to feel negative emotions such as:

  • Confusion
  • Sadness
  • Self-doubt
  • Anxiety
  • Inadequacy
  • Embarrassment

For breadcrumbed people, the long-term impact of their experience can have notable adverse effects on a person's mental health and well-being. A 2020 study found that breadcrumbed people felt lonely, hopeless, or dissatisfied at a greater frequency and depth. For co-parents who must work with their child's other parent, dealing with breadcrumbing throughout the shared parenting process can create even more profound dissatisfaction.

Is breadcrumbing the same as gaslighting?

"Gaslighting" and "breadcrumbing" are often considered interchangeable terms for manipulation, but the two concepts differ considerably based on their goals and outcomes. While breadcrumbing is usually limited to minimal contact, gaslighting is often a more active approach that includes more direct, frequent contact. Unlike breadcrumbs that make the recipient question whether the breadcrumber cares about them, gaslighting efforts make the recipient question their reality, confidence, and decision-making capabilities.


How can you deal with co-parent breadcrumbing?

Whether your ex started acting like a breadcrumber a few days or years ago, identifying it is essential to fighting it. It can seem helpless at times, but there are steps you can take to avoid being at the mercy of a breadcrumber. Here are four ways you can help protect yourself and your children from the harmful impact of co-parent breadcrumbing.

1. Communicate directly

Breadcrumbing relies on inconsistent, misleading communication to succeed. Your child's other parent may not be great at promptly responding to your messages or addressing your questions. Even if you send multiple responses asking for clarity, you could be met with silence until your ex decides to respond. Dealing with a wholly or sporadically non-responsive co-parent can negatively impact your ability to be there for your kids.

The best way to combat it is to be direct in your efforts to communicate for the sake of your children. Whether you need to try the grey rock method or another form of more intentional communication, focus on the facts of a situation instead of their attempts to impact your feelings. Do what you can to get relevant answers, and specify what action you plan on taking if you do not receive a timely response.

2. Set and stick to boundaries

Dealing with your co-parent's breadcrumbing can test your patience and empathy. In more extreme cases where you don't receive a response to a text for several days, it can be tempting to lash out at your ex and overwhelm them with messages or voicemails demanding a response. While your ex may not respect your shared parenting arrangement, maintaining healthy co-parenting boundaries is a two-way street that can be negatively affected if you cross a line.

If you recognize a breach of boundaries on either or both ends, whether it's your co-parent failing to respond or you repeatedly asking for answers, it may be time to reset unhealthy boundaries. It's unlikely that you can convince a breadcrumber to change their behavior toward you. However, you can set and follow your own boundaries, especially regarding communication, to help make the most of a shared parenting situation and mitigate the negative impact of breadcrumbing.


3. Focus on self-care

Parental burnout and other stressful feelings are expected for most parents. For those dealing with breadcrumbing, it can be increasingly difficult to overcome co-parenting triggers and manage other negative emotions. Even though it's an uphill battle, making a concerted effort to care for yourself and protect your mental health against a breadcrumbing co-parent is critical to preserving your well-being. By taking care of yourself, you can care for and be there for your children.

While there are many options, some activities that promote self-care include:

  • Prioritizing sleep
  • Journaling routinely
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating regular, healthy meals
  • Staying hydrated

4. Seek legal assistance

Breadcrumbing is often a nuisance or minor inconvenience, but it can inevitably make a greater impact on your ability to co-parent effectively. Your co-parent's inability to communicate can become a roadblock that begins to infringe on the terms of your parenting plan. This issue is especially relevant if you have joint custody and must make major decisions together. Without your co-parent's direct and timely involvement, they can throw a wrench into a would-be smooth shared parenting situation.

Even if it seems helpless when your ex repeatedly refuses to answer you or strings you along in conversations, working with a qualified family law attorney or other legal professional can help you identify and leverage solutions. If you want to avoid the costs of working with a family law attorney, you can pursue free and low-cost alternatives that connect you to other forms of legal assistance. In either case, you'll need to prepare to collect evidence relevant to your situation and in support of legal action to pursue a solution that addresses your breadcrumbing co-parent.

For parents navigating shared parenting with a breadcrumber, a co-parenting communication service like TalkingParents can help document and organize information and interactions. Features like Secure Messaging and the Shared Calendar help consolidate communications and events for both parents to reference, minimizing the need for additional or repeated contact. Additionally, any interaction and action taken in TalkingParents is stored in an Unalterable Record that qualifies as court-admissible evidence and can be used in working with a legal professional. With accountability built into every feature, co-parents can simplify their relationship with breadcrumbing exes and focus on being present with their children.

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