Six months into her relationship with her boyfriend, 23-year-old senior account executive Olivia Mushigo suddenly couldn’t bear being around him. Two weeks later, the pair had broken up.
“I started to get annoyed with the smallest things he would do”, Olivia tells The Independent. “We’d go clubbing and I wouldn’t want him around or even touching me.” Olivia knows she probably didn’t deal with her feelings in the most sensitive way when she dumped him without reason, but she couldn’t really explain what was happening. “Looking back, it was very wrong of me, but we were all young once.”
Zoe, a 25-year-old from Essex, describes herself as a “classic millennial dater”, saying she always finds herself in “situationships”. On one occasion, she went off a guy she had been dating for 10 months, “for no rhyme or reason”.
“I think it generally comes down to being in limbo for so long that I don’t allow myself to develop feelings,” Zoe tells The Independent. When he’s finally ready to commit I’m already halfway out the door,” she explains. “There have also been times when I’ve built the physical side of the relationship up so much in my head that when it comes down to it, I go off the person because it doesn’t live up to expectations.”
During Monday evening’s episode of Love Island, Priya Gopaldas told her fellow Islanders that she had started feeling unattracted to her partner, Brett Staniland, during a dinner date. The 23-year-old medical student told fellow contestants Kaz Kamwi and Liberty Poole: “I feel like sometimes when he holds my hand I feel like it’s my dad holding my hand, you know? Or like, my best mate… Honestly, I just don’t want to kiss him.”
Love Island: Priya and Brett voted off island after being deemed least compatible
This isn’t unique to TV relationships, many daters know the feeling of not only romance fizzling out but feeling you can no longer be around the person. Those little habits of theirs – the ones you found irresistible at the start – now make your skin crawl; you’ve developed “the ick”.
“‘The ick’ is a newly-coined term that applies to the sudden onset of the feeling that a person to whom one was previously attracted is suddenly unattractive to the point where physical contact seems revolting,” Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic, tells The Independent.
The origin of the dating term is actually rooted in Love Island, explains Ted Mentele, editor in didactics at language learning app Babbel. While the words “ick” or “icky” have been used for decades to express disgust, “the ick” was seemingly coined by Olivia Atwood while describing her relationship with Sam Gowland on the reality television programme in 2017.
A version of the term was also used during a season one episode of Friends when Monica discovers the man she is dating is a senior student in high school. “It’s icky,” Monica tells him during their break-up. But how – and why – does the ick come about and can it be avoided?
As exemplified in the case of Leanne and Mike, “the ick” has been known to generally occur during the early stages of a relationship. Dr Spelman states that “the ick” tends to take place “after a period of mutual attraction, and before the relationship has had time to mature into a settled, long-term situation”.
Relationship coach, dating industry consultant and founder of The Love Group Global Sarah Louise Ryan explains that couples who are in the early stages of their partnership are continually “figuring each other out, exploring new things about one another and delving into values, wants and needs”.
“If something doesn’t seem to click, perhaps because these values don’t seem to have aligned enough to take the early stages of physical attraction to something closer to feeling like falling in love, then modern dating dubs that uncertain phase ‘the ick’,” she outlines.
According to celebrity dating coach and relationship expert James Preece, when someone experiences “the ick”, it can appear as “a gut feeling that you can’t ignore”, even if you cannot logically wrap your head around your feelings.
“Maybe they did or said something that repulsed you – or it can be a sudden realisation that you’ve been ignoring some major red flags,” he explains.
Jo, who was in a year-long relationship, says she was “so excited” when she first started dating her partner. “We got along so well, everything clicked and, for a long time, it just felt right. Then, out of nowhere, about eight months in, I started avoiding hanging out with him alone,” she tells The Independent. “It took me a few months to realise that I was experiencing ‘the ick’ and that it was happening because the honeymoon period had ended and it was clear we weren’t right for each other.”
A pivotal reason why people may experience “the ick” could be relying on first impressions rather than noticing something has gone wrong, says Lara Asprey, founder of matchmaking organisation Asprey Introductions.
“It all comes down to how we can form a preconceived notion of someone and establish in our psyche an identity before we know who they really are,” she explains. “We therefore, build people up before they have had the chance to prove themselves and then get wholly disappointed when they don’t fit into the image we built them up to be in our minds.”
It may also be due to “our unconscious mind reacting to some fundamental incompatibilities between us and the person to whom we were so recently attracted,” explains Dr Spelman.
“Because of the initial rush of attraction, we’ve chosen to overlook these fundamental incompatibilities and to pursue a relationship with them. However, when there are serious incompatibilities, problems will emerge at some point.”
Sally Sheldon, lead neuroscientist at brain training app Peak, offers another explanation for why “the ick” occurs – that it is a sign of your “inner critic” holding you back from experiencing happiness.
“When you start to feel your relationship is heating up, your brain tries to protect you,” Ms Sheldon states. “When our minds circulate fearful, critical, judgemental thoughts, our brains release stress hormones, such as cortisol. Why? Because our brain doesn’t know the difference between an event that’s actually happening and one that we are imagining. Our survival response (fight, flight, or freeze) overrides our logical brains, putting our system on guard. We then convince ourselves that we’re going to get hurt by this person, and we convince ourselves we don’t like them anymore.”
So if you realise you may be experiencing “the ick”, what should you do about it? Preece advises giving the situation “careful consideration”, so as to thoroughly assess why your feelings have evolved in this way and to determine whether you think your relationship could still have a future.
“Sometimes we have these thoughts purely as a way of protecting ourselves from getting too involved emotionally,” he says. “If it’s just a small thing that you can overlook then do so. However, it’s often best to trust our gut instinct as we can’t fool ourselves into ignoring larger problems.”
Asprey, on the other hand, believes getting over “the ick” is a “near impossible” feat. “If you find yourself relating to this and developing ‘the ick’ then it’s almost certain your ‘situationship’ will only go in one direction,” she affirms. “You need to ask yourself if you are referring to an idealised image of what you want.”
Ultimately, though, getting “the ick” isn’t an opportunity to break up with someone without considering their feelings, says Shannon Smith, dating and relationship expert at Plenty of Fish. She says it’s important to be as “authentic and honest” as possible about your state of mind. It’s perfectly feasible that the other person is completely unaware that you’re feeling this way, and is still invested in and excited about the budding romance between you.
Smith explains that you must try to gain a greater understanding of why are no longer feeling invested in your relationship, as opposed to using “the ick” to summarise your emotions. “It’s important to carefully assess where the feeling is coming from,” she says. “If the source of ‘the ick’ isn’t something you could get past, then it’s time to have an honest conversation with your partner, airing your concerns in a tactical manner.”
Dr Spelman stresses that it is important not to place any blame on the other person if you have developed these kinds of feelings, as it likely isn’t their fault. “You can accept your feelings and take responsibility for how you choose to respond to it, without trying to deflect blame,” she says.
“You may suddenly be struggling with feelings of revulsion towards them, but they are still the same person you were attracted to until recently. This is the most important thing to remember, so that you do not consciously or unconsciously attempt to place the blame for your subjective feelings of revulsion on their shoulders.”