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What is the ick? How hyper-specific turnoffs came to rule dating lingo

What is the ick? How hyper-specific turnoffs came to rule dating lingo

Have you ever dreamed up your perfect partner? He’s soft-spoken, romantic, and …. wait he’s into live-action role-play? Ick!

Fostering a fledgling love affair can be exciting but also precarious. What if you learn something new about them that makes you cringe? Worry not, modern dating lingo has a term for that: “the ick.”

It’s a catchall for turnoffs large and small, and a difficult phenomenon to shake, those afflicted report. Some are universal (think chewing with their mouth open) while others are more subjective (think using the wrong form of ‘there’ in a text.)

To understand the ick better we investigated what causes it, how long you can expect it to last, and how much you should care.

What is the ick?

The ick is a Gen Z-ism that rose to popularity partly thanks to the reality television dating hit “Love Island.”

The phrase, which is onomatopoeic, refers to a feeling of repulsion that suddenly crops up with a romantic partner. Different from a genuine qualm about compatibility, or a pet peeve even, it is often connected to idiosyncratic behaviors that make you think (or say aloud): “ick.”

The term runs rampant on TikTok, with plenty of users weighing in on their “Ick List.”

The idea is that once contracted, it’s hard to shake. But is that true?

Does the ick ever go away?

It can. It depends on the nature of the ick. It’s important to distinguish between what is a general pet peeve and what is a relationship turnoff, Talia Bombola, a psychotherapist and relationship mentor says. Both of these things can sometimes be referred to as “the ick.”

A helpful question to ask, she says, is: If my celebrity crush or someone I found jaw-droppingly attractive did this would I still be bothered? If the answer is yes, it’s probably a pet peeve. If it’s something bothering you specifically when the person you’re dating does it – maybe it’s a signal of a larger distaste with that person, or an ick.

“I think there should be more encouragement to explore why it’s an ick,” Jen Seip, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in relationship and sex therapy says. Maybe they’re a lousy tipper, and that feels like a harbinger for their viewpoints on the value of service. That may be a more legitimate claim towards compatibility than if they own a few fedoras you don’t particularly love. Seip says the bottom line is that if the ick is something trivial and you like everything else about them, you should be able to get past it.

“It really does matter what is creating that disgusting feeling and if a person can change and is willing to change,” Bombola says.

For example, if a partner does not wash their hands before eating and it gives you the ick, you may be able to ask them to consider making a change. You can request behavior or habit changes as long as it doesn’t relate to the core of who someone is, Bombola says.

What does it mean if you get the ick?

TikTok language doesn’t always translate into legitimate psychological principles. It follows that sometimes the ick can indicate something deeper, and sometimes it’s just a throw-away turnoff.

“Our brains are all about prediction,” Seip says. Every day we get messages from society, culture, even our parents that become ingrained she explains. When our brains work to make sense of those messages based on what we perceive to be acceptable around others sometimes an ick will emerge. But it is better understood when it is examined.

“Why am I disgusted by this? Where did I learn that laughing at your own jokes was something that should not be acceptable?” Seip says, drawing up a mock inner dialogue.

Sometimes, the ick just means a piercing of the facade of a perfect partner, Bombola says. “When they make a misstep out of your fantasy and they bring you into reality faster than you wanted to that can create disappointment and can manifest as the ick,” she explains.

Is the ick just anxiety?

A popular counter-point to the ick is that it is just another form of anxiety − our brains seizing on a trivial detail to reject someone, rather than confront a fear of intimacy. Like much of pop psychology, it’s more complicated than that both Seip and Bombola say.

The ick can easily feel like anxiety Seip says. “Your body literally gets dysregulated” she explains, “the dysregulation of the body is this sort of anxiety. It’s a signal for you that you physically feel like you need some space from whatever the thing that person is doing.”

That said, like predicting how long the ick will last, deciding if it is true anxiety or not requires some introspection. If you are feeling emotionally unsafe and think that may be what is prompting anxiety, it is best to remove yourself Seip says.

If you’ve chosen something small to hyper-fixate on and like most other things about your potential partner, that may be a different story. “There are times you are newly with somebody and you don’t want to actually be emotionally close so you blame the reason why you can’t date that person,” Bombola says.

Just curious for more? We’ve got you covered

USA TODAY is exploring the questions you and others ask every day. From “Is Zillenial a real thing?” to “Who are the KIDZ BOP kids?” to “How to be happy”, we’re striving to find answers to the most common questions you ask every day. Head to our Just Curious section to see what else we can answer for you. 

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