WTH Is 'The Ick' (AKA Why Your Partner Suddenly Repulses You)

Is it possible to shake the feeling?
Women frustrated with partner
Photo: FG Trade Latin / Getty
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Wendy Rose Gould
wendy rose gould headshot
Wendy Rose Gould
The Knot Contributor
  • Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance reporter based in Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Along with The Knot, she contributes to Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Insider, Verywell Mind and others.
  • Wendy has a degree in editorial journalism and a second degree in philosophy.
Updated Oct 27, 2023

Everything seems to be going great with bae. The chemistry is good, things feel exciting, and real potential for the future swirls about. And then, seemingly out of the blue, you're struck with a case of the ick. It's an undeniable feeling, and one that's hard to shake off once it settles in.

"In general, 'the ick' is associated with feelings of disgust. In this context, it describes a sudden aversion to something your partner does or possesses that might send a chill down your spine or force you to look away," explains Shan Boodram, a sex and relationship expert for Bumble.

So what, exactly, is the ick and why does it happen? And can you get rid of the feeling once it overcomes you? We've got answers ahead.

In this article:

What Is The Ick?

Simply put, the ick is a sudden lack of attraction to a partner for a particular—often seemingly small—behavior, habit, personality trait or lifestyle decision that doesn't sit well with you. It's called the ick because it's characterized by a feeling of being grossed out or repulsed.

And here's the thing: Getting the ick is super subjective. One person's ick trigger can elicit another person's "Oh, that's sexy!" response, says Dr. Stan Tatkin, PsyD. And what might cause you to feel ickiness toward one person might not matter to you in another relationship. In that sense, it's sort of elusive and can sometimes catch you by surprise.

Where Does 'The Ick' Come From?

The feeling of being suddenly (and seemingly irrevocably) grossed out by another has been around for ages. The term "the ick," however, is relatively new. Some date the first usage of this phrase back to the late '90s TV show, Ally McBeal. It also popped up in Sex and the City: In fact, there was an entire episode dedicated to it called "'The Ick Factor.'"

Since these instances—which are now 20 to 30 years ago!—the term has picked up some steam. Some credit this to Olivia Attwood when she used the phrase on reality TV show Love Island. The phrase took off on TikTok and Instagram, and here we are today.

Examples of What Causes The Ick

To help you understand the ick a bit better, let's zero in on a handful of examples. And remember: it's a super subjective thing, so these might not matter to you.

  • Your partner wears a garment or accessory that seems either untrendy or too trendy
  • They say something awkward
  • There's a certain smell about them you don't like
  • They come on really strong and you're just not feeling it that intensely
  • Their opinions or beliefs don't jive with you
  • They have a really irritating-to-you behavior, like the way they chew their food, comb their hair or talk on the phone
  • Details were revealed about their past that didn't sit well with you
  • Their social habits bother you

All of these are general reasons why you might have caught the ick, but there are a million more.

What's What: The Ick vs. Turn-off vs. Cringe

The ick feels like a switch that's been flipped that's really difficult to recover from. It seems to settle deeply to your core, which makes it hard to shake once you've got it. This is different from experiencing a turn-off or a cringe moment.

"A turn-off is something that we can all pretty easily agree upon and is more general—like someone being rude to waitstaff or bad hygiene. But this may not mean the end of the attraction. It's just a flag to proceed with more caution," says Boodram.

A cringe moment, on the other hand, is usually a one-time transgression that you felt was super awkward in the moment but got over pretty quickly. Maybe they told a really corny joke that nobody laughed at, or they wore an outfit that felt really "try hard" versus authentic to themselves.

What to Do If You Catch The Ick

If you've got a real bad case of the ick and aren't quite sure if you should jump ship or see it through, the answer is that, well, it depends.

First, determine if this sudden feeling is caused by an inconsequential factor (like a garment, smell or oddball habit), a cautionary yellow flag or a bright red flag.

Yellow flags might be something like not aligning 100 percent on political beliefs or having different lifestyle habits that can impact the trajectory of your relationship but you may be able to work past. Red flags, on the other hand, signal danger and that you should probably end the relationship. These include ongoing substance abuse, the inability to maintain important relationships, anger issues and controlling behaviors.

"The ick may be your intuition warning you of something larger that it can sense, but can't put into words yet; or you may genuinely not like something in this person that may seem small to some, but to you it takes the enjoyment out of relating with this person," explains Boodram.

She says you won't know what the reason is unless you sit with yourself and ask the important questions on why you feel the way the you do and if you have the capacity to try to overcome the ick.

Can You Ever Get Over The Ick?

If you've determined that what you're dealing with is a case of trivial ick and you truly want to salvage the relationship, try to move forward. To do this, you need to tap into your "reasoning brain."

"When it comes to choice and decision making, psychologists have identified two kinds of thinking: system one and system two," Boodram says. "The first thinking is responsible for the majority of the decisions people make in life—it's the fast, barely perceptible opinions and choices we make without really having to think about them."

In system two—our reasonable side—we tap into critical thinking and consider pros and cons. If you've built a genuine connection with your partner and can see a future, it's important to run big decisions (like bailing from the ick) through this critical thinking system before making drastic moves. Is the relationship worth salvaging? Are you aligned everywhere else? Can you move past this and get the spark back?

Is the Problem Within Yourself?

Boodram adds that there's another reason people get the ick, which has nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with themselves.

"You may suddenly have the ick for someone because you are afraid of commitment. And thus, your brain is searching for reasons to halt the intimacy, even though there truly aren't any glaring reasons to do so," she explains.

This is referred to as avoidant attachment, and it's a common reason why people get the ick. If you've ever wondered, "Why do I get the ick so easily?" there's a decent chance that avoidant attachment is a culprit. In this case, it's important to understand why this is a pattern in your life so you can work beyond it and enjoy meaningful relationships.

All that's to say that the ick is definitely an elusive thing and that a lot of people experience it (hence the coined term). If you decide you want to work past it, putting in the work can help you deal with the feeling and get back to your relationship. And if you decide that the ick transgression is far too great to overcome, move along.

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