The science behind the ick
Relationships

The real reason ‘the ick’ ruins relationships

From bad breath to odd habits, the ick can ruin a blossoming relationship when it strikes. Lotte Jeffs investigates what’s behind the debilitating dating phenomenon.

Everything else about Daniel was great. OK, he was shorter than her, but that was easy to overlook when he was “so lovely” and they “got on great”. But once Lisa, a 41-year-old music promoter from London, got “the ick” weeks into dating him, there was no going back. “I became mildly obsessed with the fact his neck just seemed to be non-existent on our second date – and I chastised myself for being disgusted b​y it,” she says. 

The dealbreaker, however, came when Lisa woke up one morning to find that he was on the floor next to the bed meditating. “I’m not even sure why I was so offended by it,” she says. “I don’t have anything against deep meditation, but even now when I remember him sitting cross-legged with his eyelids flickering, it still makes me heave a bit.”

Most of us will relate to that skin-crawling, mind reeling, totally repulsed vibe about someone we’ve dated, but we might not have realised it’s such a widespread social phenomenon until a Love Island contestant first gave a name to it in 2017. Yes, the etymology of the ick can be traced back to the same show that gave us “mugged off” and “my type on paper”. 

Back then, contestant Olivia Attwood gave an apt explanation when she unexpectedly experienced the feeling with her then Love Island partner, Sam: “When you’ve seen a boy and got the ick, it doesn’t go,” she said. “It’s caught you, and it’s taken over your body. It’s just…  ick. I can’t shake it off.” But the ick had a rich cultural history pre-Love Island too; just think back to the first season of Friends: episode 22’s The One With The Ick Factor saw Monica feeling icky after realising she’d slept with a 17-year-old who had been lying about his age. 

Almost two decades later, dissecting your ick with friends or on social media – specifically TikTok, where users post videos of their weirdest ick prompts – is a phenomenon in itself, with actor Sophie Turner recently revealing her very own turn-off moment came during the early days of dating husband Joe Jonas, when he insisted that he’s often told he looks like a young George Clooney. “It gave me the ick straight away,” she said.

But what actually is it? “Simply put, the ick is when you become utterly repulsed by somebody who you were once incredibly turned on by,” says anonymous dating educator, agony aunt and Sunday Times bestselling author LalalaLetMeExplain, who took a deep dive into ickyness for her book Block. Delete. Move On. “The reason could be something completely rational (catching someone chewing their toenails, for example) but it’s often irrational (the way they dropped their umbrella, perhaps). A feeling of revulsion hits you and it becomes impossible to be around them.”

After some extensive research, I can reveal that while many instances of  the ick have their roots in bad kissing or more often loud eating (​“He was such a vigorous chewer. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t unhear it,” one woman told me), the majority of icks shared with me are highly personal and pretty niche. For Ella, a 30-year-old teacher from Bristol, it was a photo of her boyfriend at a wedding wearing a long shiny jacket “like a maharajah” that made her die a little inside. For another woman, it was a man paying for his half of dinner with a Groupon voucher that set her ick alarm off. Not liking vegetables, eating mayonnaise with every meal, picking at stubble, carrying a handkerchief, ordering a burger and only eating the meat were all cited as ick-inducing moments. For Mohammed, 28, it was something as unexpected as his date getting cosmetic work done in the middle of their short-lived courtship. “I don’t judge people who do that usually; I know loads of people who have, but when the guy I was seeing did, it just turned me off. I can’t really explain why.” 

Jenna, who is 28 and lives between Manchester and London, most memorably experienced it when dating a guy who had the Lacoste crocodile tattooed on his chest. “He was a bit full on,” she admits. But she overlooked her instincts because he was good looking and nice. The ick hit when he asked what her favourite TV show was as a child, and a few days later, a Dogtanian DVD got delivered to her work. “It was the sort of thing that would be really sweet in a long-term relationship, but not so much after only two dates.”   

It would be easy to presume, then, that the ick might simply be a symptom of our inherent fear of intimacy. In an effort to find out, I spoke to Dr Tara Porter, clinical psychologist and author of the self-help book for young women You Don’t Understand Me: A Young Woman’s Guide To Life. “We all exist somewhere along a continuum of how comfortable we are in committed romantic relationships,” she told me. “Some people really struggle with commitment while others invest in relationships too early – the ick can come into play in both those settings. It can be an excuse for somebody who is commitment-shy and looking for reasons to feel disgusted by a partner. But people can also use the ick to regulate their over-investment in a relationship. They will imagine their potential love interest doing something disgusting and find themselves less enamoured by them.”

Lala, however, says it’s important to figure out whether you’re genuinely experiencing the ick or if it’s merely self-sabotage. “This often happens with people who we genuinely like,” she says. “The ick becomes a form of self-protection because it all feels too good to be true, so we create a weird issue (like, ‘his hat blew off in the wind and now I can’t stand the sight of him’). For some, niceness can feel very unfamiliar, and as a result, it can make them uncomfortable.” 

If you were to try to tidily sum up the discomfort that the ick brings up, disgust would undoubtedly be the word you’d reach for. And this is important – disgust is, in fact, the least studied of the six basic human emotions (the others are anger, surprise, fear, enjoyment and sadness), as asserted by Paul Ekman, one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. And is that really a surprise? Disgust is ugly and awkward and hard to get a handle on. One of Ekman’s contemporaries, psychologist Paul Rozin, believed that disgust operates as a foreshadowing of our own deaths. While more recently, the cultural theorist Sianne Ngai explored disgust as a social feeling. A person experiencing it will often seek validation from others (“Yuck, this cheese smells disgusting… have a sniff”), which goes some way to explain social media’s obsession with the ick. In short, we want our niche repulsions to be validated. 

Sometimes, it’s these visceral, bodily turn-offs that creep up when we least expect it. “I once dated a man a bit older than me,” says Jessica, 39, who lives in Barcelona. “I had just arrived in Spain for Erasmus; he was local and took me around Madrid. He knew all the best bars and nightclubs, and I felt amazing with him. Then one day, I left my scarf in his bag. He returned it to me saying his mum had folded it in a plastic bag for me. She might not have realised, but this bag already contained his dirty socks. It ended the romance. In my head, he would always be the man with bad foot odour whose mum did his laundry.”

Interestingly, disgust also plays an evolutionary purpose. “If we taste or smell something disgusting, it might be off or contaminated and that could make us sick,” explains Dr Porter. “So it’s actually a survival mechanism to warn us against something that’s potentially dangerous.” This, she adds, could just as easily be applied to dating – we’re subconsciously on the lookout for anything that might be threatening, weird or off-putting in the early days of relationships to protect our chances of survival. 

As the ick becomes a growing topic of conversation, though, I can’t help but worry it’s going to make all of us even more paranoid when dating, desperately performing the most perfect version of ourselves. The result, of course, is a lack of authenticity. For Zoe, a 27-year-old Londoner who works at a digital start-up, this became a problem when she found the ick cropping up everywhere. “I was so easily put off by someone that it was becoming a problem,” she explains. “It wasn’t fair on the guys I was dating, so I took all the apps off my phone and spent some time getting to know myself a bit more. I wasn’t ready for a relationship and I guess that was my body’s way of telling me. After about a year, I went back to it and I’m now in an ick-free relationship. It was way more about me than any of the guys before.”

Other times, though, the ick serves a serious purpose. Remember Ella, who was grossed out by a picture of her new boyfriend in a shiny jacket? Well, she ignored her ick and stayed with this man for two years. “It took me that long to realise his lack of style was due to a severe lack of curiosity about life in general,” she says. It goes to show that the ick isn’t something we should necessarily try to ignore as it can come from a place of instinctiveness. It’s a gut feeling and we all know that trusting your gut can often be the right thing to do, while over-thinking things can lead to us talking ourselves out of something we know deep down is right.

But whatever you do, and it might go without saying, but don’t tell someone that you’re dumping them because of your ick, says Lala. “I don’t think it’s good to tell people why you got the ick because it’s often irrational and so individual. If, for example, somebody said to me: ‘I don’t want to see you anymore and the reason why is because you had a bit of mayonnaise on your top lip for half an hour,’  then that would make me so paranoid in future relationships. Don’t tell me about your ick because it’s not about me, it’s actually a reflection of you.” Of course, women, too, are not immune from giving the ick to partners. For James, 29, it was something as trivial as his date’s hobby that turned him off. “She was really into Depop and eBay and wanted to spend almost every weekend going to vintage fairs to find stuff to resell. It did my head in,” he says.

So while it’s important to keep the ick in check so we don’t self-sabotage for the wrong reasons, it can also be our body’s way of telling us when a potential partner isn’t a good match. Maybe, then, it’s time to actually lean into the ick and learn more about ourselves and what we want and need from relationships in the process.  And if it turns out the ick might have more to tell us than the we give it credit for, then maybe it’s our job to listen. 

Images: Getty