DEAR DR. JENN,
I have been dating someone for a couple of months and was really into him. One day, we were out together, and I couldn’t stop looking at his teeth and just became totally turned off. I found myself feeling repulsed, like I could never sleep with this person again. This is not the first time this has happened to me. What… is this? — Oh, Ew
What you’re experiencing has a name. We call it Sudden Revulsion Syndrome. While it is not a clinical diagnosis in the DSM, it is common enough to get a shout out in that other most-legitimate of diagnostic manuals, Urban Dictionary, which defines it as, “A condition many people experience after dating an individual for a short amount of time. The individual is probably polite, nice, and generally pleasant to be around, but one day, you suddenly find yourself disgusted by his or her appearance. You cannot ever see yourself establishing a physical relationship with this individual, and when you imagine it, you vomit in your mouth a little.” Finally, it adds, you “end up feeling as though you must break it off immediately.” And while we can joke about Urban Dictionary accurately describing a psychological phenomenon, the truth is I have seen this take place many times throughout my years as a therapist. It’s real, and it’s a real tough one.
Typically when this happens it is one of three things. The first is a fear of intimacy. Sometimes a person starts to develop feelings for someone they are dating, and this can suddenly scare them off. This feeling of being turned off or revolted by the other person is just a defense mechanism.
The second is when the relationship has moved too fast. What happens in this situation is that one person gets out of the romantic fog induced by late nights making love, and hot dates only to see the flawed individual in front of them in excruciating detail. Sometimes this is marked by the slow end of the honeymoon phase when you settle into a more serious relationship. Other times you get straight up repulsed by the person in front of you, because what are those teeth. (It's not the teeth.)
The third situation, which usually occurs in longer term relationships, happens when a person has ignored a bunch of signs that this is not the right person for them. Maybe he's feeling external pressure to hurry up and get married, maybe she feels her biological clock ticking, and, in that desire to be in a committed relationship, overlooks too many things. Eventually they wake up and find themselves turned off by the partner they’ve hitched their wagon to.
When SRS is due to a fear of intimacy, it often occurs around significant milestones. You're more likely to see this after a couple has slept together for the first time, when it comes time to move in together, when a couple is about to get engaged or has just become engaged, around a wedding, or even when a couple is starting to try to make a baby. When it occurs in new, fast-moving relationships, it is more likely to feel random. That’s when you have reached your intimacy-with-a-stranger threshold. You’ve gone too far too fast. They aren’t what you want.
There are a number of things you can do to combat this. The first is don’t move too fast in a relationship — you’ll end up spooking yourself. Try to establish a more comfortable pace. Keep in mind, self awareness and a willingness to look at your own issues is the key to fighting SRS. Being aware of your reservations when it comes to moving forward in relationships, your triggers, or the hot buttons that usually make you want to eject yourself from a dating scenario will help. It's also good to be honest with yourself about your family history and how it impacts you and your ability to have a relationship. Basically, taking a good, hard look at yourself is the best way tp prevent suddenly being revolted by the (probably super nice!) person before you.