"Smooch" is not a nice word. It sounds slimy. It’s uncomfortable. It can’t really be taken seriously. I cringe and recoil at the sound of it.
A guy I was dating, we’ll call him Nathan, used to say "smooch" a lot. "One more smooch," he’d say as he’d drag me back into bed in the morning. "Let’s stay in tonight. Smooch and cuddle on the sofa?" he’d propose. My stomach is lurching as I write this now but at the time my "smooch" aversion wasn’t a thing when it came from Nathan’s mouth. I thought it was sweet. Endearing, even. And I really did enjoy it when we kissed.
Other things that would normally bother me about a prospective partner – having poor quality bedsheets, wearing ill-fitting shirts, smelling of weed and booze when you’ve told me you won’t drink or smoke before our date night — were magically put aside as we continued to spend time together. This is the guy, I thought. Yeah. This is really great.
But then, about three weeks into our situationship, I noticed Nathan had done something to his beard. He’d shaved it not from his jawline but from a few millimeters above it, all the way down his neck. It looked like a stick-on beard. Like something that had been pulled out of a kids' fancy dress box and Pritt Sticked onto his adult-sized face, only to leave a confusing line of exposed skin tracking from each of his ears.
You probably think I’m being really mean. Hair grows back! It’s just a beard! It’s not a big deal! And my rational mind would agree with you, pal. But there was no getting around how repulsive I found that dramatically bare neck. I spent hours moaning to friends about how I couldn’t get past it, despairing over no longer wanting to look at the nice(ish) guy I’d been head over heels for just hours before. Despite their attempts at reassurance, advice and talking me down from the ledge, it was too late. I had The Ick, and there was no going back.
Unfamiliar with the phenomenon? "You THINK you like them but then you suddenly catch ‘The Ick’. From then on you can’t look at the person in the same way, you just progressively get more and more turned off by them, weirdly and maybe for no reason in particular grossed out by them," reads Urban Dictionary’s definition of the term. "Nothing will be the same, you won’t be able to do it any longer and eventually have to cut it off."
There’s a sizeable backlog of pop culture references that confirm The Ick is a romantic death sentence. Friends series one, episode 22 – otherwise known as "The One With The Ick Factor" – saw Monica irrevocably disgusted when she found out that Ethan, the new guy she’d fallen for, was in fact 17 years old, not 22 as he had initially told her. In "The Ick Factor" episode of Sex and The City in season six, Carrie is put off by Aleksandr’s old school romantic gestures and their relationship trajectory thereafter is wildly unconvincing until they finally cut their losses. And of course there’s Olivia’s declaration in the 2017 edition of Love Island, when she told the nation that the real reason she cut it off with eager man Sam was because she, too, had caught a heavy dose of The Ick.
Out here in the real world, the post-Ick demise isn’t always as straightforward, but the rest of my course with Nathan generally mimicked catastrophes I’d seen on screen. Post-Weird Beard, it was a tough ride. I finally started to grimace at the word "smooch." My rose-tinted nonchalance towards his shit shirts and the lack of hand soap in his bathroom faded and eventually made me irate. Are you wondering whether I addressed any of these things with him? No, of course not. Besides struggling to find an inoffensive way to deliver the news, I was also terrified that if I spoke The Ick into existence for Nathan, then the entire glorious facade of our burgeoning relationship would come crumbling down with it, and I was quite enjoying fancying someone (every couple of weeks when their beard grew back out again).
I was stubborn in what remained of my crush but The Ick, I found, was much more powerful. "It begins to unravel. It’s quite often something that you found quite endearing in the first instance, interestingly," behavioural psychologist and dating coach Jo Hemmings tells me. "A little quirk about their character that [you] thought was kind of cute when [you] met them becomes an irritant when the veneer wears off of a relationship."
Jo explained that even if it’s not something that you originally found endearing, that annoying little thing that suddenly becomes a really important thing can often signal the beginning of the end. But if something like that starts to bother you about your partner, it's worth working out where it's come from and, unlike me, examining the root cause early on. "Sometimes it could be because you’re feeling a bit down or tired so you're reacting to a number of things in life. You’re not at your best and anything could be an irritant, and that in itself is more down to you. But if it’s something you used to find attractive or that didn’t matter enough to notice, I think you [should] ask yourself, What is this about and are there other things, or perhaps other concerns, in my relationship?"
"I would have a conversation with your partner – perhaps not quite like that [putting it in my unforgiving terms of The Ick] but at least say how you're feeling about things being a bit cooler at the moment. For some people it [the attraction] can really come back whereas for others it's how things begin to deconstruct and unravel. But it's the tiny things, not necessarily the big rows or feeling that you're not compatible. It's the tiny little giveaways."
It rings all too true. One of the most frustrating things about The Ick is that the issue that triggers it feels so inconsequential. I feel silly moaning about a beard but it — and a string of other things further down the line — really didn't sit right with me. Even when my friends and I would brainstorm how to correct Nathan's bad shaving habits, elevate his wardrobe and introduce sexier vocabulary, staring down the barrel of your future relationship with the intention to "change" or "fix" the other person is neither pleasant, fair nor ideal. Not unless you're on Queer Eye.
"You can't change people fundamentally but there are things you can agree to disagree on or compromise on," Jo reminds me. In doing so it "could make you realize that these things don't really matter. But you can sort of change somebody's practical behavior. I think there's a difference. When people say they're trying to change somebody, it really depends on what you mean by 'change.'"
In my case I didn't try to change anything. The Ick consumed me and my perspective until, eventually, so many things had accumulated into my feeling grossly (and secretly) turned off by Nathan's habits that when we did have our first real argument about something important, the background ickiness didn't fade away in comparison as I thought it would. All those things that had bothered me before made me even more irritated by, well, everything.
Jo tells me about a couple she worked with who had issues with The Ick. "She said it started with things her husband did that began to irritate her and she got to the point where she was recoiling. Her irritation was pushing him away physically, sexually and it started eating away at her." This couple eventually parted ways, as did Nathan and I. I don't believe that we broke up just because of his ridiculous beard, but it and The Ick frustrated me so much that maybe, despite the fallouts that followed, it triggered a frustration that, through no fault of Nathan's, was never going to be repaired.
Though I don't feel great about it, Jo says that having The Ick isn't fickle. We will all notice things we don't like somewhere down the road of a new relationship with a new person. She suggests that when you are hit with the impact of The Ick, listen to it and don't forget you can do something about it — preferably sooner rather than later. Take stock of where it's come from, whether it's a you thing or a them thing, and "nip it in the bud depending on what its actual meaning is".