The Psychology of Why We Get ‘the Ick’

7 minute read

Nothing kills the vibe on a first (or third) date like discovering that the person across from you—who had seemed so full of potential—chews with his mouth open or wears sunglasses indoors or has his ex’s initials tattooed on his bicep.

Cue instant repulsion, or what’s called “the ick.” The term, which is used liberally on social-media platforms like TikTok and among reality TV contestants, describes an abrupt feeling of disgust about someone you were previously attracted to, usually during the early stages of dating. “It feels like there’s this random, very sudden turn-off,” says Naomi Bernstein, a clinical psychologist in Dallas who co-hosts the Oversharing podcast. “It’s visceral and automatic, more a reaction in the body than a rational thought.” The entire person—usually a man—becomes the ick, appearing to morph into some intolerable behavior or trait in front of your eyes. 

But should you even pay attention to the ick? And once you’ve got it, can a relationship ever recover?

Why we get the ick

Bernstein’s clients have been talking about the ick for years—and she suspects evolutionary factors are partly why it’s such a shared experience. “I’m a feminist, and we’re in a world where women have more power,” she says. “But our human bodies evolved in a patriarchal world where men protected us from predators, and hunted, and were strong.” That resulted in what Bernstein calls a “leftover evolutionary desire” for potential mates to display certain characteristics, even though we may not be consciously aware of or even like to admit it. Among them: good genes, which indicate a male’s ability to pass on traits associated with offspring survival. So if your Tinder match has chapped lips? “Maybe that’s subconsciously an indicator of poor health, poor nutrition, or poor hydration,” Bernstein says. We’re also wired to seek out masculinity, she says, as well as social status. Remember that time you got the ick after finding out your date is the type to clap when the plane lands? “That feels embarrassing, which means it might not be acceptable by a larger social group—which, coming back to evolution, was essential for human survival,” Bernstein says.

There are other possible driving factors behind the ick. It could indicate relationship anxiety or avoidance that we don’t even register, says Phoebe Shepherd, a clinical psychologist based in Brooklyn who specializes in couples therapy. Feeling suddenly turned off by a potential match is often a defense mechanism triggered when someone gets scared by a relationship that could hurt them—or change their life in big ways. “Feelings aren’t facts,” she points out. “They’re just information.” Shepherd treats a lot of clients with complex trauma that traces back to their childhoods, and she’s found that when they’re instantly drawn to someone, it’s not always a good thing—because what feels familiar is the sort of trauma or chaos they experienced as kids. “I do wonder sometimes, if someone’s feeling like they have the ick, is it actually their body saying, ‘This is unfamiliar?’”

Read More: How to Respond to an Insult, According to Therapists

There could also be some projection going on, Shepherd notes. Let’s say your date does something you consider embarrassing, like showing too much emotion. Maybe you react poorly because, deep down, you worry that you’re too emotional. “The parts of ourselves that we shame the most are the parts we keep stored away and pushed away,” she says. “Especially early on in dating, it could be a projection of shameful parts of ourselves or various insecurities that we have.”

And, of course, sometimes the ick is nothing deeper than run-of-the-mill distaste. It “can be as straightforward as pheromones and chemistry, or noticing behaviors that are similar to an annoying parental habit,” says Rachel Goldberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles. Her clients often tell her: “Ugh, I really want to like them, but I just can’t.” The challenge, then, is teasing apart when the ick is a valid reason to end a potential relationship—and when it’s worth pushing through.

Does it really have to be a deal-breaker?

Attraction waxes and wanes, and no one likes everything about their partner. So shouldn’t we be more forgiving of icks? It depends, says Todd Baratz, a therapist based in New York City and Los Angeles and author of the forthcoming book How to Love Someone Without Losing Your Mind. Sometimes a person will be so turned off, there’s no way to salvage what might have been. (And if you feel unsafe, he adds, you should alway break things off pronto.)

Other times, however, Baratz’s clients hyperfocus on some strange habit despite overall liking their date. In those cases, he might ask them more about the outing: Was it fun? Do they remember feeling charmed? If the answer is yes, that hints that the ick might be an unconscious expression of avoidance or relational anxiety, he says. “I’ll push them and say, ‘Well, they had a weird hair flip thing, but didn’t you just say you were laughing and they kissed you and you loved it?’” If the answer is yes, he might encourage them to see what it’s like to spend more time with the other person. “Dating is an experiment, and sometimes you have to run experiments multiple times to see what happens,” he says.

Read More: 9 Things Therapists Do When They Feel Lonely

While it will no doubt feel uncomfortable, Baratz adds, sometimes you can broach the ick factor in conversation. Your date has bad breath but is otherwise wonderful? It might be worth talking about it and offering them a mint, he says. “It’s important to talk to partners about, ‘This thing happened and really caught me off guard, and to be honest, it turns me off,’” Baratz advises. Maybe, together, you can find a solution.

A possible upside

The ick might make you feel ambivalent about your romantic partner,, says Giulia Zoppolat, a social psychologist at Amsterdam University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Ambivalence has long been linked to negative outcomes in relationships: “We don’t like to feel many conflicting things,” she says. “A little alarm bell goes off, like, ‘Ding, ding, ding, something is not necessarily right.’” Yet Zoppolat’s recent research suggests that ambivalence serves a purpose, and there could be positive effects. According to her study, when people felt ambivalent about their partner, they spent more time ruminating about the hardships in their relationship—and about ways they could make it better. That led to both constructive habits, including making an effort to spend more time with the other person, as well as some that were destructive, like unleashing frequent criticisms.

Read More: How to Be More Hopeful

So if you’re feeling the ick, but you don’t want to let an otherwise good thing go, make it a point to focus on everything you do like about the other person, perhaps even journaling about his or her best traits. “We have a negativity bias: we tend to weigh the negative more than the positive, and even if we’re high in positivity, if you introduce a little bit of negativity, then suddenly you're ambivalent or the scale tilts more negative,” Zoppolat says. Being aware of that—and not allowing it to cancel out otherwise desirable tendencies—can be a game-changer. Think of the ick as “a signal that something needs attention,” she says, “but isn’t necessarily doomed.”

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