For a single, twenty-something woman living in London, bad dates are a rite of passage. I’ve had my fair share of ‘colourful’ experiences; from the aspiring writer who insisted on recording our conversations into a notebook during our date, to the man who – within five minutes of arriving at the restaurant – was telling me about his time spent in prison for “threatening behaviour”. These stories, if my friends and I are a true representation of the dating scene, are par for the course, and provide excellent dinner party material – I make it a rule to arrive at any event armed with a minimum of three such stories to oil the wheels of conversation during the night.

I have a phone book full of names which conjure up a litany of sins – like the ‘Reverse Cinderella’: the guy who would only ever be available between the hours of midnight and 7am, or the man who I discovered reading through my diary when he stayed at my flat for the first time. My general attitude tends to lean towards the view that “there’s no such thing as bad dates, just good stories,” and I’ve enjoyed dining out on these tales many, many times.  There is, though, a more low-level type of  poor behaviour creeping into the norm – one which is eminently less worthy of dinner party tales. If 2016 was the year of ghosting – the sudden and unexplained cutting-off of contact by someone you’ve been dating – it looks as though 2017 lay claim to ‘breadcrumbing’.

For those of you not embroiled in the heady maelstrom that is dating in the digital age, this less-than-appetising behaviour is characterised by receiving sporadic contact – a text here, an Instagram ‘like’ there – from a potential partner, without it ever progressing into anything more meaningful. A real-life date may be loosely alluded to (“we should meet up sometime…”) but these overtures rarely translate into reality. And yet, regular in their irregularity, the messages continue, strewn in front of you at random, keeping you invested enough in the situation to harbour a vague idea that this could be a great relationship – if only you weren’t both so busy and it wasn’t so difficult to fix a date to go for a drink…

Breadcrumbing is how I’ve found myself in countless non-relationships which are stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque state of texting and interminable waits for replies, with a conservative sprinkling of actual face-to-face contact. Breadcrumbing is the insidious cousin of ghosting. Where ghosting leaves you with a quick sharp shock of realisation – you’ve been dumped – breadcrumbing leads you on, until two years later you realise you’ve been in a static and largely Whatsapp-based relationship with someone you met in 2014 when Tinder was, briefly, your default dating method.

And while – in theory – this annoying behaviour is largely harmless, in my case it started to have a damaging impact on my existing relationships. I found myself turning down plans with friends on a Friday night, keeping the evening free in case the most current breadcrumber should get in touch. I felt a pervading sense of reliance on the validation gleaned from the infrequent contact from whichever guy was in favour at the time. I found that my confidence was knocked with each breadcrumb I too-eagerly responded to, realising that the relationships existed exclusively on the other person’s terms. Allowing myself to be strung along ultimately prevented me from closing the door on numerous unfulfilling relationships, dragging them out until they’d become tired, stale, and sad, and I’d become increasingly jaded.

In the spirit of full disclosure, in no way am I suggesting that this is purely a male behaviour – and my hands aren’t clean of doughy blame; I too, have been a breadcrumber. I’ve been guilty of keeping guys on hold, knowing that I wasn’t interested in them romantically, but enjoying the attention, or not wanting to hurt their feelings by being honest.

If you ask anyone who’s had recent experience of dating, they’re likely to have their very own unique breadcrumbing experience. But why is this behaviour so prevalent? It’s probably fair to lay some culpability at the door of our instant gratification app culture which encourages us to view dating as a never-ending carousel of options; that if one romantic lead goes cold, another is a mere swipe away. On a deeper level, I suspect it’s also down to the fact that humans are inherently self-involved: we each see ourselves as the central character in our lives, with others entering and exiting as bit-part players. When this attitude is combined with dating in an environment in which we have countless options at our disposal, it’s a breeding ground for commitment aversion; our romantic relationships become more superficial and we dip in and out of others’ lives freely, without really stopping to consider the consequences.

Whatever the cause, the bottom line is this: we all lead hectic lives with various demands on our time, but if someone wants to see you, they’ll make it happen. Breadcrumbing is a sign that you’re being kept on the back burner by someone who wants to have their bread-based cake and eat it too. They want the freedom to choose not to commit, resting safe in the knowledge that they could call on you as a back-up during a particularly dry spell, seeing sporadic ‘checking in’ as a good way of doing that.

After having gone through this process more times than I care to admit, I’ve discovered that there are only three failsafe steps to follow when you discover that you’re on the receiving end of a breadcrumbing: delete their number, dust off the crumbs, and don’t look back. The path of the dating world in 2017 may be littered with crumbs, but you don’t need to follow that trail.