From Ghosting to Breadcrumbing: The Psychology of Labeling Bad Dating Behavior

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"He's breadcrumbing you," my friend insisted as we pored over the likes on my latest Instagram post, the most recent of which came courtesy of my ex. "No, no," said our other lunch companion. "That's orbiting. Or is it haunting?"

On any other occasion, I might have found this deep dive into the semantics of my misery wildly annoying, but in the wake of a breakup that had left me with more questions than answers, this latest reemergence was infuriating—and being able to classify this very specific brand of behavior felt something like a life raft.

Throughout my dating experiences in an age when social media has made us both more and less connected than ever, I've wondered whether the rise of our relevant terminology—ghosting and all the offshoots that have followed—is bad for us; whether it normalizes shitty behavior with pithy, meme-able terminology. But that conversation with my friends a couple of years ago was enough to inspire a shift in mindset. I left our lunch feeling better, and I realized it probably wasn't a coincidence.

"It's human nature—in virtually every language, by the way—that we come up with euphemisms to soften uncomfortable, taboo, or otherwise unpleasant experiences," says writer and linguist Amanda Montell, whose forthcoming book Wordslut explores the relationship between language and gender. But she notes that the fact that these words are more playful in nature is exactly what helps us cope with the experience at hand. "These terms legitimize the experience," she says. "Before ghosting, there was no succinct label that we assigned to that. Now it's easier to call out."

That we do—in memes, in text threads, in point-counterpoint think pieces. Defining these terms is just one part of it: an almost-explanation for behavior that feels, in the moment, absolutely inexplicable. But the viral appeal of these words also creates a sense of community around them. Ghosting, for example, feels a lot less lonely when you know that thousands of Instagram users have gone through the same thing.