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Understanding the 'Ick': Exploring Uncomfortable Feelings in Relationships

You and your partner seemed to be getting along just fine. And then, suddenly, it happens — the ick. Your partner says or does something that you find off-putting or even repulsive. 

  • Maybe they laugh at their own jokes and what used to seem like a cute quirk becomes intolerably annoying. 
  • Maybe they don’t tip well and you start to think they aren’t frugal, they’re thoughtless. 
  • Maybe they always wear comfortable, casual clothes and what used to seem fine now seems childish.

It could come on so suddenly that it startles you. It could happen a short time into a relationship, or years after becoming a couple. Even if you wouldn’t use the term “ick,” you’re probably familiar with the feeling.

Does feeling icky mean your relationship is over? Or is it something you can get past? We talked to Brendon Comer, a licensed clinical social worker with Banner Health, about this pesky relationship issue to learn more about what the ick is and how to deal with it if it crops up in your relationship.

What is the ick?

“Within the context of relationships, ick refers to a feeling of revulsion or disgust with a romantic partner’s actions. The ‘ick’ reaction tends to be sudden and intense,” Comer said.

It can seem to come out of nowhere and you can’t explain why you feel this way. Something about your partner that used to be charming or cute can become off-putting. If you feel it, you’ll probably be confused and have questions about your partner and your relationship. 

If you have the ick, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Feeling icky in a relationship is common — most people have experienced it. It can happen to people of all ages, genders and cultural backgrounds, in short-term and long-term relationships. 

Ick may make you question your relationship. It doesn’t mean it is over, but it likely means there’s some aspect of your relationship you need to explore with yourself and your partner.

Situations that can trigger the ick

Ick is subjective, so what makes one person feel icky might not affect someone else. People have reported feeling icky when:

  • Quirks or hygiene habits that seemed endearing become annoying.
  • They sense their partner is overly distant or clingy.
  • There’s a disconnect in goals, priorities or personal growth.
  • Red, yellow or beige flags that were overlooked resurface and can’t be ignored.

Miscommunication can make the ick worse. That’s because when you feel it, you may make assumptions about your partner instead of openly discussing your feelings. You and your partner may also have certain expectations about each other that you don’t express. 

Why do we get the ick?

Icky feelings are personal, so it’s hard to say what causes them in any relationship. It’s possible the ick can stem from:

  • Evolution: Our ancestors needed social connections to survive. So our brains evolved to identify and respond to social threats. The ick could be an instinctive reaction to something not considered “normal” today.
  • Social and cultural influences: We often measure our relationships against the expectations of friends and family and how relationships are shown in the media. You may get the ick if your partner’s behavior doesn’t align with these standards.
  • Personal boundaries: We all have expectations around experiences, values and communication styles. It can be a sign that your and your partner’s boundaries aren’t aligned.

It’s important to recognize that as people with emotions, we’re not only one thing. “We are a complex system composed of inner emotional parts. These parts are like little sub-personalities or energies that have their own likes and dislikes, strengths and burdens,” Comer said. 

“Strong reactions of repulsion — ick — may indicate that a part of us feels emotionally jolted by what just happened. This revulsion could be a serious red flag signaling danger within this relationship, or it could be an ongoing strong sensitivity that can be attended to without jeopardizing the relationship.”

How to cope

Overcoming uncomfortable feelings takes commitment and patience. “Practice slowing down after an ick reaction. Engaging curiosity can open an avenue for personal growth and understanding,” Comer said. 

Notice what’s happening in your mind and body and whether it’s connected to something from your past that has been a challenge. Pay attention to your breathing, heart rate and tension. 

“Noticing and attending to physical reactions in the moment can be a way to attend to the reactivity that just happened,” Comer said. “Slow and deepen your breath to reground yourself and open space for curiosity and examination. If you’re in a public place, maybe a trip to the restroom or outside can give you the space to slow down.”

Honest, open communication with your partner is crucial when the ick comes into your relationship. It can help to:

  • Express your feelings without judgment or blame.
  • Try to understand your partner’s perspective, feelings and motivations through active listening.
  • Consider what might be behind your partner’s actions.
  • Openly address concerns.
  • Ask questions instead of making assumptions.
  • Validate each other’s emotions.
  • Work together to identify the cause of the ick and find solutions.
  • Align your goals around values, aspirations and growth.

“Ick reactions may indicate a pet peeve or could have deeper meanings attached,” Comer said.

For example, what if you are experiencing the ick because your partner doesn’t tip well? Your feelings may be connected to challenges from the past. You may want to share thoughts like these with your partner: “I worked hard as a server to get through college, and a part of me gets activated when you leave a smaller tip because it hits a personal spot for me.”

Exploring these feelings together may be more productive than saying something like, “Why are you so cheap? Don’t you value food service work and the people doing it?”

You may also want to think about your own expectations and boundaries. Spend time reflecting on what’s non-negotiable for you in your relationship and where you can be flexible. Share your thoughts with your partner and ask them to share their own expectations and boundaries.

You can also take steps to strengthen the bond between you and your partner:

  • Plan activities, hobbies and experiences that bring both of you joy and connection.
  • Prioritize date nights, getaways and other opportunities for quality time.
  • Express appreciation and affection for your partner.

When to get help

If you and your partner are struggling with challenges from the ick, you may want to meet with a counselor or therapist. If your feelings last for a long time, impact your daily life or are causing communication problems, it might be time for professional help. 

An expert can give you an unbiased viewpoint, teach you how to communicate better, explore what’s causing the ick and help you resolve conflict. Seeking help doesn’t mean you or your relationship is failing. It’s a way to strengthen and grow your commitment.

An expert can also help you identify whether your feelings of ick stem from true red flags that are signs of danger in your relationship.

And a professional can help you explore whether your feelings are a form of self-sabotage. “If these strong reactions continually happen, they can prompt you to move quickly from one relationship to another and keep you from becoming too close or vulnerable with another,” Comer said. 

“While other parts of you want deeper connection, these protectors keep pushing people away. Therapy can help you heal and bring choice and options back into your relationships.”

The bottom line

When the ick strikes your relationship, you feel suddenly put off or repulsed by something your partner says or does. Sometimes, these feelings are signs of a relationship red flag. But in other cases, reflecting on your reaction and openly communicating with your partner can help you overcome them and strengthen your relationship.

If you’re struggling in your relationships, talking to a mental health professional can help. Reach out to Banner Health to connect with an expert

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