What do brown sandals, learning the harmonica, and yawning at the dinner table have in common? More than you’d think, actually. According to social media, all of these things are bona fide “icks”. Now firmly embedded into the dating dictionary, an “ick” is something minor about a person that instantly turns you off. It is an integral part of modern love, guiding us away from those that aren’t right for us and, hopefully, bringing us closer to those who are.
The internet subscribes pretty heavily to icks. Social media posts asking for people’s various icks regularly go viral – one widely shared post from September named things such as “uses emojis during a fight”, “rock climbing” and “likes craft beer” – while TikTok videos on the subject garner millions of views at a time. The comedian and writer Grace Campbell has also found viral popularity asking her followers to submit their icks for her “Ick Doctor” series; submissions range from “how someone eats their potatoes”, to “how they take their debit card out of their wallet”.
But in recent months, the narrative around the ick has changed. What if, instead of helping our dating lives, and decorating them with much-needed comedic fodder, the ick is actually hindering us from finding love? After all, some have labelled it sexist (the majority of icks discussed online are aimed at men rather than women), while others have dismissed it as overly judgemental. And yet, a poll of 2,000 adults from January 2023 found that nearly half (49 per cent) have ended a relationship because of an ick, while 56 per cent have ghosted someone completely.
“People use ‘the ick’ as an excuse not to get close to someone,” explains Logan Ury, author, dating coach and director of relationship science at Hinge. “I have found in my work that people often confuse pet peeves for dealbreakers and it can hold you back when it comes to dating.” There is a major difference, she explains, between something that is a pet peeve and something that is a legitimate reason for you not to date someone. “A pet peeve is something that annoys you – maybe it is a ‘velcro wallet’ or ‘socks and sandals’ – but you could get over it,” she adds.
“A deal breaker, on the other hand, is a fundamental incompatibility. Like, I have asthma and if you’re a smoker, this isn’t going to work.” The trouble is, all the online chatter about the ick has put it front and centre of single people’s minds whenever they go on a date with someone new. This could have neurological consequences when it comes to preventing us from finding a suitable partner.
“It affects the reticular activating system (RAS),” explains life coach Nick Hatter, “which is a network of neurons located in the brain stem that play a vital role in filtering out noise and tagging certain information as important. By talking about or excessively focusing on ‘the ick’, you may be unconsciously programming your RAS to look for it, and thus you risk developing a kind of confirmation bias towards getting the ick, which could hold you back from having fun and enjoyable dates, or could prematurely kill what could have been a wonderful romance and relationship.”
This was potentially the case for Persephone*, 31, who went on several dates with a man she met on a dating app before getting a severe series of icks. “It was the best first date I’d been on,” she recalls. “We got on really well, he was intelligent, fun, and incredibly attractive and adoring.” He was her perfect match… until the icks started to roll in.
“The first was that he called trainers ‘sneaks’,” she remembers. “He also wore really tight clothes that I found a bit much.” That said, he was still a great cook, and was willing to go above and beyond for Persephone whenever they saw each other, ensuring she got home okay after dates and bringing her soup when she was unwell. So she stuck with it.
I have found in my work that people often confuse pet peeves for dealbreakers and it can hold you back when it comes to dating
Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge
The ick that broke the camel’s back, however, was one evening after he’d cooked dinner for Persephone and her best friend. “The food was delicious, but after clearing up he started blasting tropical house on his speakers, whipped out a bag of cocaine and said, ‘Let’s get the party started.’” It was one ick too many, and Persephone never saw him again. “In hindsight, he was one big walking ick. But it’s a shame because in every other way, he could have been perfect for me.”
How much attention you pay to an ick may depend on factors extending beyond the relationship itself, like your attachment style. This has become a key part of contemporary relationship theory. It suggests that how you behave with romantic partners is dictated by behaviours you learnt during childhood, usually from your relationship with your parents. “Talking about your ‘icks’ with a date can be a sign that you’re trying to push them away before they get too close,” says Ury. “This could be especially true if you have an avoidant attachment style [which means you try to avoid intimacy by pushing people away from you]. If that feels like you, pay attention next time this happens, and see if you’re making an excuse to avoid intimacy.”
This seems obvious – if you’re so focused on identifying what’s wrong with someone, you’ll never spot anything that’s right. And likely with anyone. Why, then, has ick culture been so prolific online? “Like a lot of obsessions, the ‘ick’ started as a viral TikTok trend and has spiralled into ‘date-entertainment’,” explains Ury. “Dating for entertainment is the sharing of humorous dating stories to gain social capital – for example, ‘doing it for the plot’. But if you’re dating for entertainment, you’re not dating for the connection and you’re certainly not going to hit your goals. If you ask me, it’s time we got over the ick.”
In order to move past obsessing over icks, and looking for silly things to discuss with friends over brunch, or post about online, it’s helpful to shift your mindset into looking for more positive attributes in the people you date. “Firstly, you’ve got to know what you’re looking for,” says Ury. “That way you can attract people who are looking for the same thing and have shared values, which is a must when it comes to dating. Find out early on if you share the same outlook on important topics that could define your relationship. Do they want kids? Are they open to marriage? Do they like taking spontaneous trips?”
Instead, focus on what you can discover about them. Do you feel like you’re able to be yourself with them? Does conversation just flow? Do they make you laugh?
Hayley Quinn, dating expert for Match
It can be helpful, too, to simply take the pressure off. In other words, stop going on every first date expecting to come away knowing whether or not that person is the love of your life. “Even a few dates in, you won’t have enough information to make that judgement call,” says Hayley Quinn, dating expert for Match. “Instead, focus on what you can discover about them. Do you feel like you’re able to be yourself with them? Does conversation just flow? Do they make you laugh?”
Once the relationship has developed a little, and your compatibility has been solidified, then you can shift your attention to looking at the future. “Think about whether they want the same kind of relationship as you do,” advises Quinn. “Do they want commitment? How much time do they like to spend with a partner? What are their longer-term goals for their love life? Remember, building a committed relationship is a process, so don’t try to work it all out on your first date.”
Of course, talking about icks with single friends is a fun, digestible, and social media-friendly way to date, one that might well spark laughs around the dinner table and thousands of likes and re-shares. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to provide you – or anyone – with anything tangible and meaningful in your pursuit for love. And isn’t that what we’re all looking for, anyway?
*Name has been changed