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When Everything Your Partner Does Suddenly Makes You Cringe — That’s ‘the Ick’

Your natural impulse will be to flee. But don’t. There’s far more to learn by confronting the ick head-on

“Getting the ick” is a concept you may not be familiar with, but one you’ll absolutely recognize. First used by Leanne Amaning to describe her feelings for Mike Boateng during Season Six of Love Island, “the ick” is that feeling where, all of a sudden, everything your lover does is awful. Think of it as the temperamental little upstart of a cousin to that long, slow irritation you develop toward a long-term partner’s innocuous quirks, like how he always smacks his lips before telling a joke. The big difference, of course, is that the ick shows up unannounced, knocking and ringing your doorbell simultaneously, screaming about how much you hate your lover so loudly that you can’t help but listen.

Scientists have determined that the Ick’s biological progenitor was the episode of Sex and the City when Carrie Bradshaw is romanced by debonair artist Mikhail Baryshnikov Aleksandr Petrovsky. (I’m sorry, I know Mikhail Baryshnikov is playing a character, but in my heart that character is Mikhail Baryshnikov; I don’t believe he was acting and I won’t hear otherwise.) Aleksandr is ardently interested in Carrie. Maybe too ardently. He plays her sonatas on the piano, recites poetry for her and slow-dances with her in front of the Metropolitan Opera House — all romantic gestures that lead pragmatic Carrie to say “ick!” to the girls at brunch. The girls all naturally nod with recognition. It’s your friends’ job, after all, to co-sign things like the ick whenever they appear. 

That’s what I mean when I say that the ick actually bears little resemblance to that grouchy way our long-term partners’ habits make us feel. Carrie and Aleksandr haven’t been dating long enough to feel that way. The ick is more of an early turn-off, a sudden sign of incompatibility when things have been going too well. Sometimes a relationship can recover from an early ick sensibly enough — Leanne and Mike might not have survived it, but Carrie and Aleksandr dated for a while post-ick, and eventually broke up for non-ick reasons. The ick isn’t a dealbreaker unto itself. But it can be a portent for dealbreakers to come.

While Carrie’s ick feelings stemmed from an obvious source (Aleksandr’s relentless romanticism), Leanne’s did not, and so, only the latter’s experience is true to the precise spirit of the ick. We’ve all been there, no? I’ve gone on first-and-only dates with plenty of people who were great on paper, pleasant enough, good-looking, smart — and for all those fine qualities, still totally ick-inducing. In a long-term relationship, you can typically look with a critical eye at your own annoyance with a partner. You can recognize that overfamiliarity has bred your feelings. You don’t claw him in the face when he smacks his lips because at the end of the day, you love him. The core of the ick, however, is that you can’t explain why you got it when you did. 

The ick is easy to confuse with the more rational Sudden Repulsion Syndrome, when a relationship that has been proceeding pleasantly enough is suddenly derailed by a realization — that your partner belches after every bite of food, or that they’re afraid of fluoride. Such sudden repulsion is always pegged to a particular unappealing action. You may react to that action inappropriately, but the existence of the reaction is both logical and explicable. The ick, on the other hand, is pure chaos. You don’t know why you feel it, can’t pin it on anything your lover did and are still utterly powerless in the face of it.

The most important thing in an ick scenario is to flee, because one crucial characteristic of getting the ick is that it makes you feel like you can’t spend one more minute in the company of the person who’s caused it. They haven’t done anything wrong, except for being a little emotionally clumsy or awkward. It’s your own irrational feeling that you may feel guilty for having, but you still feel on some level like it’s their fault. After all, they’re so great on paper! Why would you be getting the ick if they weren’t deficient on some primal level — if they weren’t, in some way, icky? 

This is the thinking that not only triggers your flight response, but justifies it. When you do flee, you’ll feel that you did the right thing until enough time has passed to make you realize you were probably being kind of an asshole.

To my mind, the ick is most expressive in romantic relationships, but by no means confined to them. A platonic ick (platonick?) exists and can be just as damaging. Often, when I’ve met a person who seems like they could be a cool new friend, I’m actually more repelled by their peccadilloes than I am by those of a would-be romantic partner. Maybe it’s because, unlike the way I scan every lover for red flags, I’m not on the lookout for offenses in a platonic scenario. The stakes are lower, and so the ick has more destructive potential because it comes as more of a surprise. That said, a platonick can also be easier to wait out. With a potential lover, the expectation is that you’ll stay in regular communication in the hopes of becoming more romantically entwined; friends can more reliably fall out of contact for weeks without doing damage to the friendship. During that period, you may find yourself less icked out the next time you speak to the other person.

In my experience, that’s what the cure for the ick usually is — time. As the saying goes, absence makes the ick-tainted heart grow fonder. A person who has annoyed the shit out of you through no fault of their own will become less annoying if you simply don’t put yourself in situations where they can annoy you. One hippie-dippie remedy for yeast infections is to stop eating sugar until the yeast infection dies — the theory being that the yeast will be starved to death without sugar to consume. This remedy actually works when applied to the ick: Starve it, wait it out. Do this and you may find that the next time you see the ick perpetrator, you’re no longer so turned off by them. More than once, I’ve seen someone who once gave me the ick several years later and wondered what the hell my problem was.

When I look back on the many great icks of my life, I don’t feel vindicated by my decision to cut the other person out. I feel ashamed. A person who gets the ick regularly is an anxious person, a perfectionist. I get the ick regularly. I’m a perfectionist. If a relationship doesn’t feel like it’s proceeding the way I need it to proceed, it unnerves me so badly that I start looking for problems. If I fail to find real problems, my anxious brain’s last resort is the ick. Nothing’s wrong with this guy, but something about our chemistry is incurably off, and I suffer from the intractable need to make it his fault. 

At this, the ick excels. Nobody can argue with it. The problem isn’t that you’re too anxious to end something that inexplicably isn’t working; the problem is that you just got the ick! He had to go! What were you going to do, feel the ick for the rest of your life?

This isn’t true of every single ick, but I do think it’s broadly appropriate, especially for people who find themselves getting the ick often and without any explanation. Maybe the problem isn’t that you got the ick; it’s that you just got plumb spooked for whatever reason, and you need this unknown anxiety you feel to have a cause. The ick is a perfect scapegoat here. It’s a reason that isn’t a reason, something nebulous at which you can shrug your shoulders and move on. The urge to act quickly in the face of the ick is understandable, but the wiser move is to try to notice it without letting it rule your response to an otherwise promising person. Because acting on the ick can leave you feeling icky yourself.