Ghosting, Gaslighting and Breadcrumbing: How and When to Use the Terms

Photo by Erik Müller on Unsplash

It was expected that the unholy trinity of modern dating: ghosting, gaslighting and breadcrumbing would eventually work their way into everyday speech. They are the new kids on the block much as narcissists, borderline and Cluster B used to be, but with less clinical definitions.

And it is that lack of academic formality that has caused these terms to be misused or overused. To be fair, this was also to be expected. Ghosting, gaslighting and breadcrumbing are far more accessible terms because they sound like things we already know. You could even guess what the terms meant in the context of dating (probably with the exception of gaslighting).

So here’s the what, how and when on using these terms.

With the rise of social media, it became easier to connect with a new romantic crush. It also became easier to disconnect. Ghosting is the act of discontinuing communication with someone without telling them of one’s decision to do so, specifically when there had been prolonged communication for some time. It’s often used in the context of dating, but the term has been used in friendship, family and business.

The reason ghosting is seen as harmful is because the sudden halt of communication hurts the person being ghosted. The ghoster side-steps the responsibility of making their intentions known and dealing with the consequences of walking away from the interaction or relationship.

There are times when the ghoster is the manipulator and times when the ghoster is the manipulated, so people could use it to exploit others or to protect themselves when they don’t feel strong enough to declare that they’re leaving.

Ghosting is not merely leaving someone. If you tell the person you want to leave that you’re leaving them, that isn’t ghosting. But because people use ghosting as a more pejorative word that “leaving,” people have started to ignore the context and just say “ghosting.”

Some might say that if someone is being abused and they discontinue communication with their abuser that that shouldn’t count as ghosting. I think that’s fair. Personally, I would still call such a situation ghosting. But as I said before, sometimes people have to do it especially if they don’t think they are capable of standing up to the person they want to leave because are too afraid of giving in.

As you may know, the term comes from the 1938 play, Gas Light. The abusive husband gradually turns down the gas light in the house. When the wife questions why things are getting darker, the husband tells her that she’s crazy and that the lights are the same.

Gaslighting is when one psychologically manipulates another into thinking that their perception, judgment and memory are wrong. They are told that the things they see are not there, that they incorrectly heard things and that their memories are false.

By doing this, the abuser slowly undermines their victim’s sense of autonomy. Eventually the abused will come to rely on the abuser to think for him or her.

Gaslighting is not mere lying. What separates gaslighting from lying is that gaslighting clearly involves lying and deception but there is the added element of trying to get the other person to doubt their reality and their ability to perceive accurately.

If I say to you, “The sky is polka-dot,” that would be a lie. But I’m not gaslighting you. However, if I said that the sky is polka-dot as a lie in a set of lies that are used to undermine your belief that you are perceiving reality, and then I tell you that the blue sky you are perceiving is false, that’s gaslighting.

Plus if I convinced other people to tell you that the sky is polka-dot, then that’s definitely gaslighting.

Breadcrumbing is basically leading someone on. It’s luring someone into thinking there is an opportunity for romance by sending out flirty or suggestive messages, but in reality there is no real desire to fulfill any sort of romantic relationship.

People could do this for a number of reasons, one being that their self-esteem is dependent on a lot of approval from others. Another reason is to exercise control over someone else.

Breadcrumbing can also be used to control another by offering crumbs of affection and the victim getting conditioned and dependent on receiving the shards of affection.

If someone genuinely wants to spend time with you and they fail to make a promise, they did not breadcrumb you. Yes, they failed to keep their promise. But if they have a habit of making and keeping promises with you, just because they failed once does not mean they were guilty of breadcrumbing.

If someone genuinely cares about you but they fail sometimes or even often, this wouldn’t be considered breadcrumbing. If anything it’s just a litany of mistakes that prevent them from following through on their commitments.

This may hurt the people in their lives but because there was no intent to hurt or use anyone, it wouldn’t be considered breadcrumbing.

It’s understandable that terms would be misused or misappropriated, especially when we learn terms without knowing the context and therefore the subtlety of the definition.

But I also feel that some have given into lazy thinking or even manipulative tactics when using these terms in order to coerce people into guilt.

But for what it’s worth, hopefully you will use the terms responsibly and appropriately.

Former Edu. Psychologist | Current Writer | Constant Learner | “By your stumbling the world is perfected.”

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