Relationship Tips

How To Handle a Case of ‘the Icks’ in a New or Long-Term Relationship

Photo: W+G Creative
A close cousin of “moist” in my book, “ick” is a word that sounds a little gross to say—and that’s fitting for its definition in the context of relationships. The "ick," which has become a trending concept on TikTok, refers to any kind of highly visceral turnoff or the experience of being repulsed by said turnoff (á la “catching the ick”). Given the vast span of things that could be interpreted as icky turnoffs, though (take sticking your tongue out in photos and holding a fork weirdly for two completely unrelated examples), understanding what the ick really is, why it shows up, and what you can do about it requires deciphering some relationship psychology.

Generally, catching the ick while dating or in a relationship tends to leave you feeling as though you'll never look at the other person quite the same way again...that is, without a sense of overwhelming disgust. And though the ick tends to show up in newly forming relationships, it can happen in long-term relationships, too, says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, founder of Evolve Counseling & Behavioral Health Services. The common denominator? Something the other person said or did creates a sudden “ew” feeling “that can negatively impact the way you view them overall,” says Dr. Fedrick, “and it is hard, if not impossible in some cases, to come back from.”

What does the ick look like in action?

When it first shows up, the ick is more of a grossed-out feeling than a conscious thought about another person’s actions. “While we all wish to rationalize our feelings about a potential partner, our bodies can sometimes tell us something significantly different than our minds,” says psychotherapist Susan Zinn, LPCC, LMHC, NCC, founder of Westside Counseling Center. “The ick is a powerful physical reaction to someone’s mannerisms or behavior.” It could arise in response to anything that makes you want to scrunch up your nose or recoil in the same way you might if you smelled some rotten milk. The sheer physicality of this ick reaction, then, tends to extinguish any sort of sexual chemistry that might’ve previously existed between you and the ick-inducer.

“The ick leaves you feeling immediately put off, turned off, or even repulsed.” —Susan Zinn, psychotherapist

Crucially, though, catching the ick doesn’t necessarily mean the other person has actually done something wrong or inappropriate, says Zinn. It’s just that your perception of their words or actions leaves you feeling “immediately put off, turned off, or even repulsed,” she says.

That’s precisely why an ick should not be confused with a relationship red flag, which is a more objectively concerning behavior, says Dr. Fedrick, like poor financial habits or a negative conflict-resolution style. These signs of relationship incompatibilities can be explained by logical thought processes: This person doesn’t share your values or they don’t feel safe, for instance. Catching the ick, by contrast, tends to feel hyper-personal and sometimes even illogical—and it isn’t necessarily a sign that your relationship is destined for trouble (more on that below).

What can trigger this icky feeling?

Because everyone reacts differently to different behaviors, there’s practically no limit to the number of potential catalysts for the ick. “These can include very simple reasons, such as being turned off by the other individual’s choice of music, television, food, or fashion, or something more biological, such as being turned off by the scent of their body odor or breath,” says Dr. Fedrick. On TikTok, things called out as causes of the ick (also called "icks," themselves) include any number of bizarrely specific actions, like “calling me 'Kitty Kat” and “taking your top off at a concert.”

While many icks can feel borderline random—for whatever reason, you just don’t vibe with x or y behavior—in some cases, previous personal experience may be at the root. “For example, if you were in a toxic relationship prior with someone who wore a certain cologne, you might then experience the ick if the new person you’re dating starts wearing that same cologne,” says Dr. Fedrick. “This is less about the new person, and much more about experiencing a sensory trigger that results in a feeling of disgust due to previous unsafe situations.”

Similarly, an ick can sometimes surface in a healthy relationship if you've experienced only far less healthy relationships in your past, perhaps in your formative years. “If you grew up, for instance, feeling unsafe or unseen and eventually convinced yourself that you didn’t need emotional attachment or security, then it might feel icky when someone is suddenly attentive, secure, and trustworthy,” says Zinn. In this case, the ick is your natural defense mechanism against this new-to-you level of relationship safety (making it something you’d want to work through rather than run from).

Once you’ve reached the long-term stage of a relationship, icks can look a little different. While it’s true that something mundane your partner says or does could still act as an instant turnoff, it’s also possible that the very comfort and closeness you’ve achieved with a partner becomes the ick itself. “When you’re enmeshed with a partner, they can start to feel more like a sibling than they do a romantic lover,” says Dr. Fedrick. If your first reaction to that was “ew, gross,” that’s just it: “That sense of becoming overly familiar with a partner can cause the ick, as we are biologically wired to be turned off by someone whose genetics are too close to our own.”

Should you use the ick to guide your decisions within or about a relationship?

Short answer: It depends. There’s certainly some credence to acknowledging your body’s natural response to a person’s presence, according to Dr. Fedrick. “If you are newly dating someone and are repeatedly feeling icky or uncomfortable with that person, it is likely that your nervous system is sending a message to you that something is not right in that dynamic,” she says. “In this case, you want to honor that your body is trying to protect you and consider moving on.” Particularly if the ick is not an isolated thing and has changed your overall perception of a partner, such that you’re no longer interested in physical closeness or intimacy, it may be worth cutting ties rather than fighting the feeling.

That said, the ick can be a fickle thing. Perhaps the action that catalyzed the feeling is something you could gently ask your partner to avoid doing, and over time, the ick may dissipate as a result.

Or, if it seems like a few different behaviors are contributing to the ick you feel for a person who (otherwise) checks all your boxes, self-reflection may help you gauge whether your experience in previous relationships may be leading you to instinctively reject a good thing. “When we become afraid of getting too attached to someone and getting hurt, it becomes easy to find flaws in the other person and start to push them away in a subconscious attempt to keep ourselves safe,” says Dr. Fedrick. In that situation, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to simply end the relationship over the ick.

Instead of running, you’d want to share your vulnerabilities or fears of intimacy or commitment with your partner in an open, honest conversation. “They may be able to listen, work with you, and make changes to create a secure attachment minus the ick,” says Zinn, who also recommends seeing a therapist if you suspect that attachment issues are triggering your ick. “A professional can help you process what you’re feeling and determine if there might be something you can work through to allow the ickiness to resolve over time,” says Dr. Fedrick.

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