To navigate the nebulous world of modern dating, where true love can supposedly be found via a meticulously curated app profile, we’ve had to arm ourselves with new vocabulary. Ghosting, catfishing, breadcrumbing, fuckboys, sliding into DMs. More often than not, these terms describe the irritating, or even cruel, actions of others. “I’ve been ghosted. What a fucking dick!” reads the message in the group chat, to which friends flock to concede that, yes, the offending party really is a dick – and not even that fit, to be honest. It’s a concise and defensive lexicon, used to help us make sense of and feel better about the shitty things people do to us. You don’t need to think too deeply about why you’ve been catfished. Just say “thank u, next” and carry on swiping.
But what happens when the dating lingo actually has nothing to do with the other person and instead how you feel about them? Enter: “the ick”, that slippery, vague feeling of disgust towards a potential partner that comes over when, well… that’s the tricky bit. The term has long been a favourite amongst Love Island contestants, often used by Islanders when, for whatever reason, they decide they no longer fancy the person they’re coupled up with. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what caused the ick – perhaps they’re too keen to make everyone a cuppa in the morning, or maybe they tried to lift the mood by rapping – but what’s certain is that, once the ick arrives, there’s no going back. It’s impossible to get past those feelings of disgust, so let that head turn 360 like you’re possessed, baby.
Over the past year or so, conversations about the ick have dominated online dating discourse. There are Reddit threads dedicated to exposing various icks users have experienced over the years. Endless TikTok videos that use #theick have been viewed more than 122 million times. Meanwhile on Twitter, it’s rare to go a week without seeing a tweet that’s gone viral for detailing a particularly obscure (and therefore hilarious) onset of the ick.
As reports of the ick have evolved into bankable viral content, the reasons for getting it have become increasingly absurd. “Just saw someone say they got the ick from the way their bfs body flailed around when they got in a car crash,” tweeted user @beerdefeater. Now, he was probably joking (we hope, at least), but the fact that it could land to the tune of 237k likes illustrates the level of absurdity icks have reached. Also spotted on the worldwide ick rotation: riding a broomstick on a Harry Potter studios tour, wiggling fingers before choosing a chocolate, having “highlights” on an Instagram profile, owning a printer, being a man, being alive.
Sure, these admissions might make you snort as you scroll on your lunch break. But could the proliferation of ick conversations online actually be hurting us when it comes to IRL dating? After all, relationships are about compromise. Is it really worth binning a good thing, simply because a person turned you off once?
Well, it’s all about having a clear understanding of what you want from a relationship. “For each of us, we have our own wants or needs, and things that we find deeply unattractive,” explains psychotherapist and author of Thoughts from the Couch, Juliette Clancy. So, for instance, you might be consistently repulsed by people who eat with their mouth open and, as superficial as it might be, that’s a deal breaker. Then there are the qualities that reflect people’s core values, such as a date talking about women in a degrading way. Examples like these are cases where the ick is likely to be too strong to work through: they’re in conflict with existing prerequisites for a potential partner.
The thing about the ick, however, is that reasons for it are often more undefined and arbitrary than the qualities you might have already identified to be deal breakers in a relationship. And actually, on those occasions, it might not be the icky thing that’s the problem, but rather the stage of your relationship.
“The beginning of a relationship is full of hormones and fantasy. What we tend to forget is that each of us have positive and negative qualities. And often, we ignore the negatives in the hope that they go away, because our feelings outweigh that, or we think we can change it,” says Clancy. “The second stage of a relationship is that sort of doubt and denial. You think that you like somebody and then you suddenly realise that, actually, they’re a bit annoying, and then you have a power struggle, you’re disillusioned. Most people then will say that’s the sort of ick moment and they’ll give up. But actually, that’s just part of a relationship, because we’re never going to meet somebody that is perfect.”
Basically, give it a chance. That’s easier said than done, yes, but potentially worth it in the long run, when you’re settled down with triplets in a decade’s time.
And as Clancy notes, using “the ick” to explain away the breakdown of a relationship is also a way of avoiding self-reflection and interrogating the problem more deeply. “It makes it easier to not have to justify the reality of what’s going on. We don’t have to say anything, just ‘I’ve got the ick’. OK, but what does that mean?” she says. “Rather than thinking, ‘I’ve been on three dates, and what I really realised is that I hoped he would be much more romantic than he is and, actually, he really reminds me of my dad. When I think about my wants and needs for a relationship, he just isn’t able to fulfil those.’ That’s a conversation. But saying ‘I’ve got the ick’ in a way feels a little bit like dating apps, where it’s just disposable. It means somebody can just be discarded with three letters.”
That brings us onto another reason why the ick might be hurting our love lives: it’s actually just kind of rude. “I think that it’s about being clear and I think this is about being grown up,” continues Clancy. “It’s about taking responsibility for your own wants.” In reality, the ick doesn’t alert us to fundamental flaws in the other person, but rather the part of us that doesn’t like a certain quality. “The mature way to approach it is to take responsibility for yourself. It’s got nothing to do with the other person. But when I think about ‘the ick’, I think it’s blaming the other person.”
As with many problems in the online age, the key to combating the ick boils down to two simple things: “kindness and respect”. Whether your ick is a deal-breaker or a fleeting moment of post-honeymoon-phase doubt, ensuring you’re being compassionate when approaching the issue with your partner is key. Open up and communicate, give the other person a chance to understand the issue. Maybe you’ll be able to work through it, or maybe it’s time for a conscious uncoupling. Either way, at least you’ll both be able to move forward having learned something about your wants and needs in a relationship.
Put simply, stop being so chaldish!