Abusers are really good at blurring the lines between unethical behavior and abusive behavior. It makes it difficult for their victims to acknowledge that what they’re experiencing is abuse, simply because they aren’t sure. This is especially true when it comes to emotional abuse and a common abusive behavior pattern that victims are often uncertain about is breadcrumbing.

Breadcrumbing is emotional abuse. It’s a pattern of invalidation and manipulation that abusers use to remain in power and control of their victim. Breadcrumbing contributes to the low-self esteem, social withdrawal, confusion, and difficulties concentrating that is common for victims of emotional abuse to experience. 

Breadcrumbing, also known as intermittent reinforcement, has some significant consequences both the mental and physical health of the victim and this article is going to explain how. We’ve also created a short video with three examples of breadcrumbing so that you can go into this article as informed as possible!

A Short Video With Three Examples of Breadcrumbing In Abusive Relationships

How Is Breadcrumbing Such a Powerful Form of Emotional Abuse? 

The most important thing that you must remember when learning about the different forms of emotional abuse is that emotional abuse is a pattern of abusive behavior that is designed to keep the abuser in power and control of the victim. To do this an abuser will consistently invalidate, devalue, and minimize the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs of their victim.

What makes breadcrumbing such a powerful form of emotional abuse is the pattern of manipulation and abuse that leads up to it. This pattern consists of mirroring, future faking, abuse, and finally, breadcrumbing. This pattern of manipulation and abuse dismantles the victim’s sense of self, corrupts their ability to conceptualize an accurate version of reality, and bullies them into neglecting their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.

Mirroring

In abusive relationships mirroring is when an abuser will absorb as much information as they can about their victim’s identity and use that information to create a falsified identity that is designed to fill a void in the victim’s life. Mirroring is all about the abuser transforming themselves into exactly what their victim needs them to be. 

The most elite form of mirroring is a phase called love bombing. In abusive romantic relationships, love bombing is when the abuser tries to reflect or “mirror” their victim’s ideal love. It is often described as magical, special, and unique because many people have fantasies of a passionate, intense, and fairytale-like love story. 

Abusers are able to fulfill this fantasy with an overwhelming amount of communication, time spent together, gifts, spontaneous moments, and materialistic things. But if someone were to grow up in an abusive environment that corrupted their perception of love and healthy relationships, the love bombing phase would most likely be the abuser reflecting or “mirroring” the victim’s corrupted perception of love. 

So, instead of an overwhelming amount of communication, time spent together, gifts, spontaneous moments, and materialistic things, the love bombing phase would be plagued with things that were familiar to the victim like invalidation, devaluation, high and low points, and minimization. 

When it comes to an abusive family setting, mirroring often manifests in the form of the abusive family member pretending to be emotionally available, responsive, and consistent for the victim. In an abusive work environment, mirroring could be an abusive colleague pretending to have the same vision as the victim or a desire to see the victim succeed. 

A narcissist mirroring his victim

You can learn more about the versatility of mirroring in our article How Do Narcissists Use Mirroring but it is important to be aware that it comes in all shapes and sizes so to speak and it is all about the abuser transforming themselves into the “perfect” match for the victim. It plants the belief that the abuser is the key to a happier and healthier life in the victim’s subconscious, which sets the stage for the next phase in this manipulative pattern, future faking.

Future Faking

When an abuser makes a false promise for the future to get what they want in the present, it is called future faking. The false promise that abusers make to future fake almost always corresponds with the information they gathered about the victim while mirroring them. A good future fake solidifies the victim’s belief that the abuser is the key to a happier and healthier life. 

A future fake can manifest in both a verbal and nonverbal form. A simple example of a verbal future fake would be if an abuser reassured his girlfriend that he wanted to get married and have children even though he didn’t. He is making a false promise in the future to remain in power and control of his victim in the present. 

Things get a little more complex when it comes to nonverbal future faking. What nonverbal future faking is, is actually the falsified identity that abusers create with mirroring to fill a void in the victim’s life. 

By presenting themselves as the “perfect” person for the victim, they are manipulating the victim into believing in a happier and healthier future that is never going to happen. What future faking essentially does is it places the victim up on an emotional pedestal from which they think they see the abuser inspiring them be the best version of themselves. 

But the moment that the abuser senses that they’ve got the victim hooked, they kick that pedestal right out from under them and begin their abusive pursuit for power, control, validation, admiration, and reassurance. 

Abuse 

The mirroring/love bombing phase doesn’t last very long. A survey we conducted in our article How Long Does the Love Bombing Phase Last among 220 survivors of narcissistic abuse revealed that on average, the love bombing phase with narcissistic men lasts five-and-a-half months and with narcissistic women lasts three-and-a-half months.

Once the abuser senses that they’ve got the victim hooked, they’ll stop portraying themselves as the “perfect” person for the victim and begins to show their true self through a variety of abusive behavior patterns that are designed to invalidate, devalue, degrade, dehumanize, minimize, and manipulate their victim’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.

We created a huge guide to the devaluation phase that outlines all of the different abusive behaviors one could expect to experience during the phase in our article What Is the Devaluation Phase, but the part of the devaluation phase that helps make breadcrumbing such a powerful form of emotional abuse is something called cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that suggests when we experience an inconsistency among belief, behavior, and information, it causes a tremendous amount of psychological tension. To ease this tension we will change one or more of the elements that are causing the inconsistency to make everything consistent. 

Ok, let’s walk through this step-by-step. In the beginning stages of the abusive relationship, the mirroring and future faking gives the victim the information and shows them the behavior that they need to develop the belief that the abuser is someone who can help them live a happier and healthier life.

When the abuser senses that they’ve got the victim hooked, they drop the act and begin the devaluation phase where they minimize, devalue, invalidate, degrade, and manipulate the victim’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs on a daily basis. This changes the information the victim has and the behavior that they see, leaving them only with the belief that the abuser is the “perfect” person for them.

A victim of narcissistic abuse being confused

Society is often quick to say that the victim should just leave the relationship at this point and shame those who don’t, but this is a very difficult position to be in because you have to remember that abusers feel entitled to remaining in power and control of their victim at all times. We spoke about this a lot in our article What Do Narcissists Want In a Relationship but victims of abuse are very important for the abusers selfish needs.

In fact, they are a fundamental requirement for the emotional stability of abusers and it is for this reason that abusers have a ton of manipulative behaviors that are designed keep the victim in a state of cognitive dissonance which manifests in the form of the justification, rationalization, and normalization of abuse, but none more powerful than breadcrumbing.

Breadcrumbing

Breadcrumbing, also known as intermittent reinforcement, is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals. This manipulative pattern of mirroring, future faking, and then abuse leaves the relationship so emotionally starved that the “reward” abusers use during intermittent reinforcement is simply the slightest amount of empathy and compassion.

Abusers use breadcrumbing when they notice that their victim is reaching their limit with the abuse and is intentionally or unintentionally emotionally checking out of the relationship. This means that they are no longer providing the abuser with enough validation, admiration, or reassurance and the abuser can feel that they’re losing power and control over the situation. 

Just for a reminder, a simple example of breadcrumbing would be if an abuser realized that his victim was emotionally checking out of the relationship because of how invalidating, devaluing, and degrading the abuse was so he takes her out on a very nice date and tells her how much he loves her to manipulate her back into being a viable source of validation, admiration, and reassurance.

The reason that breadcrumbing is so powerful is because the “reward” that the abuser gives the victim actually triggers the reward center in the victim’s brain and floods their body with dopamine. This is the same neurotransmitter that is released when humans abuse drugs like opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine. 

What ends up happening is that the “reward” temporarily shows the victim the behavior and gives them the information that they need to maintain the belief that the abuser is still someone who they can have a happier and healthier life with. The feeling that they get from this after months or even years of abuse is exhilarating and addicting

It makes them feel so good that it becomes their only known source of happiness because all of the abuse they’ve experienced has destroyed their sense of self. So, their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs are all invested into the abuser in their life. 

a victim of narcissistic abuse confused after the breadcrumbing

When their abuser gives them a little “reward” or a little breadcrumb, it triggers their sense of hope that they can live a happier and healthier life with the abuser. This leads to them remaining in the abusive environment, despite the negative impact it has on their health, chasing the “reward” that the abuser strategically gives to them.

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Breadcrumbing is one of the most malicious forms of emotional abuse out there! The pattern of invalidation and devaluation that makes breadcrumbing so effective puts the abuser in a position from which they can remain in power and control of the victim for months, years, sometimes even decades because it manipulates the victim into truly believing that the abuser is the only way that they can live a happier and healthier life.


All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References:

Pesek-Cotton, Erin F., Joshua E. Johnson, and M. Christopher Newland. “Reinforcing behavioral variability: an analysis of dopamine-receptor subtypes and intermittent reinforcement.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 97.3 (2011): 551-559.

WebMD: What Is Dopamine?