Paperclipping vs. Breadcrumbing: Combating These Toxic Habits

As humans, many of us struggle to be direct with others. Today’s digital dating landscape can take indirect communication to a whole new level. 

Online dating apps create just enough digital distance to make it easy for emotionally unhealthy people to hook unsuspecting people into toxic relationships. You’re vulnerable when you put yourself out there again, and if you do it online, you’re also subjecting yourself to new and more frustrating ways of getting strung along and being emotionally abused. 

We’re talking about paperclippers and breadcrumbers … people who use harmful and hurtful manipulation tactics while courting you online. Recognizing the warning signs of paperclipping and breadcrumbing can help you safeguard your emotional wellness and self-worth.

What is paperclipping?

What are the signs of paperclipping? Here’s an example. Let’s say you dated someone for a while, and things seemed good. You had what seemed like a promising relationship. 

Then suddenly, that person disappeared. 

While being ghosted was frustrating enough, months later, they pop back into your life like nothing happened. How are you doing? What have you been up to? Want to see a movie Friday night?

This leaves you feeling quite confused. Are they interested? Were they ever interested? Should you pursue the relationship again (and risk them disappearing again)? 

Paperclipping is a new term for an age-old behavior. A former dating partner drops communication for some reason (maybe things were beginning to get too close), and they show up much later out of the blue. This leaves you wondering what happened and what their intentions really are.

What is breadcrumbing?

What are the signs of breadcrumbing? Here’s an example. Let’s say you received interest from a potential dating partner – quite a bit of interest. They sent flirtatious text messages, and you enjoyed some amusing back-and-forth banter. It was fun, and the person seemed interested. 

But when you suggested meeting up, that person was busy. In fact, they were always busy. There was never any follow-through to the flirting and seeming interest. If you did manage to make plans, they canceled at the last minute.

This behavior left you confused and frustrated, wondering if they were interested or not. You tried sending a message, and they took their time getting back to you. Maybe you got sporadic responses in the form of cryptic one-word messages or emojis.

It wasn’t until you backed off that they became “interested” again. Suddenly, you regained the focus of their attention.

What just happened? You’ve been breadcrumbed!

Differences between paperclipping and breadcrumbing

Paperclipping and breadcrumbing are just some of the behaviors you’re likely to encounter in the dating world today. The behaviors aren’t new, but the digital conveyance of them is. Online dating makes it even easier for emotionally unhealthy people to play their toxic dating games – games that can wreak havoc on your self-esteem and mental health.

While breadcrumbers and paperclippers are similar in their need for personal validation (at the risk of your feelings), they differ in some ways.


The intentions of a paperclipper or breadcrumber can be as varied as the individual. Many times, the paperclipper was (is) interested but just can’t make a mature commitment. Running away is their modus operandi, and getting your attention months later – still with no intention of commitment – helps them feel better about themselves again. 

While the breadcrumber may be operating out of a similar inability to commit, they can also be manipulative and emotionally uncaring in general. They may see you as a sexual outlet for their own needs. They may have another relationship in the wings. For some, it’s the thrill of the pursuit, and once they have your attention, they fizzle out. Either way, it’s not your best interests they have at heart.

Tone of communication

A paperclipper may genuinely like you, but the closeness of a relationship scares them. Their reaction is to hide from their fears (and you) by cutting off communication. When they get just enough distance, they pop back into your life as if nothing happened. See? They still like you. They just can’t commit to you.

The breadcrumber is more overtly leading in their communication. They’re adept at the hook and can skillfully give just enough to get it. But once they have your attention and interest, they become more distant, throwing you just enough “breadcrumbs” to keep you interacting. 

Frequency of communication

Once the fear of a relationship has set in, a paperclipper goes missing in action. Gone. Communication is nowhere to be found … until they need your attention again. 

A breadcrumber is more wiley. You get the full spectrum of behaviors, from unrestrained love bombing in the beginning to dwindling near-nothings once they have your interest. But, once they think you’re losing interest, they reappear, messaging you and showing up in your social media, hoping you’ll bite.

Degree of engagement

With a paperclipper, there was some engagement. You were actively dating or involved in a relationship until their great disappearing act. 

With a breadcrumber, actual engagement rarely exists. And if it does exist, it’s usually to benefit them, not you. 

Past vs. present 

Paperclipping involves a past dating partner or ex who suddenly reappears out of nowhere. You don’t know why they’re back, and you’re not sure they do, either. 

Breadcrumbing involves a current dating interest who gives you just enough attention to keep you on the hook – and confused. They’re not interested in commitment, but that doesn’t stop them. 

Read: What Is Codependency? Am I Codependent?

How to respond to a paperclipper or breadcrumber

While both behaviors are frustrating, they’re a fact of life in today’s dating game. 

Unfortunately, emotionally unhealthy people often find codependent partners who allow them to continue behaving badly. Don’t be that person.

Being led on is hurtful and disrespectful, but you don’t have to be part of it. If you find yourself wondering what you did wrong, know that you didn’t do anything wrong. Paperclippers and breadcrumbers act out their emotional deficiencies at your expense.

Recognize the red flags, and set healthy boundaries. For the sake of your sanity, consider cutting breadcrumbers and paperclippers out of your life before you waste more valuable time. 

Dating after divorce can be scary, but there are still plenty of emotionally healthy people out there who want a stable and loving relationship. At Hello Divorce, we not only offer divorce plans that can set you free from a bad relationship, but we also offer professional services and a library of helpful resources to support you into a new and exciting post-divorce life. 

Have questions? Schedule a free phone call with one of our account coordinators for more information.


Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.