When One Tiny Thing Your Partner Does Spells Doom for the Relationship
Sudden Repulsion Syndrome is what happens when a small decision or behavior puts an abrupt end to a budding relationship. We investigate the common causes of SRS and what this says about dating culture today.
Illustration by Vivian Shih
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For Heather, the first barf-worthy moment presented itself near the beginning of a budding romance. Her would-be suitor, a "Corey Feldman lookalike" with a penchant for fedoras, showed up to their third date with drastically shorter hair. "It actually looked pretty great, until he turned around and I saw that he had left a tightly braided rat tail cascading from the nape of his neck," Heather said. She tried to be a "good sport" about the dangling mane—AKA, they still had sex—but, she says, "I had to keep moving the tail off his back and out of my sight during the act because the look of that tiny braid moving in tandem with his spine was absolutely ghastly! I stopped seeing him a couple weeks later for a lot of reasons, but mostly it was because of the rat tail."
While Heather's decision to terminate the relationship seems rational, her sudden, visceral reaction to her mate's haircut suggests a distinct phenomenon at work — namely, Sudden Repulsion Syndrome (SRS), a term first devised in 2007 to describe "a small, seemingly insignificant thing — a behavior, a physical characteristic, a genetic disposition toward Hummels — that immediately and irrevocably renders your mate unattractive." The syndrome, as its name would suggest, comes on quickly — it can alter your perception of a boyfriend within a matter of minutes. It's also fatal to the relationship.
The science behind SRS, just like everything else about it, is still up for debate, but it seems to occur in the aftermath of a honeymoon period. Once the dopamine has worn off, a flaw first dismissed as a quirk suddenly becomes a relationship's death sentence.
Despite the fact that obsessing over relationship minutiae seems like a holdover from a simpler time (2007 was also a year when people blogged about minutia for fun!), a quick survey among acquaintances revealed that yes, sudden repulsion still happens to people, including "good people" who don't usually have dirtbag knee-jerky reactions to things that happen around them (and who wouldn't "next" someone unless they had a good reason).
This would seem to indicate that SRS isn't simply neuroticism in overdrive. Perhaps, instead, it offers people an excuse to get out of a relationship they had a sneaking suspicion wouldn't work out in the first place—whether due to a partner's poor taste in film, questionable tramp stamp, or voluminous Instagram hashtags. But it remains debatable which revelations are worth torpedoing a relationship over.
One friend described to me an unsettling anime portrait, drawn for her by a date as a romantic gesture, as a deal breaker. "It was terrible!" she exclaimed, which seems a bit harsh if everything else about her suitor had been perfect. (Incidentally, it had not been.)
Dating coach Julie Spira notes that constantly feeling besieged by a date's unsavory traits could be a sign that your standards are impossibly high. "When clients that I'm coaching tell me they don't like someone's haircut, or had a problem with a tattoo they never knew about, I tell them not to sweat the small stuff," she said. "We are living in a society where we've turn into perfectionists, especially when it comes to love."
"It's one thing to be picky, but some singles have become so overly picky that they will dump their partner for wearing flip flops or shoes with socks," she continued.
In other cases, however, the repulsion seems justified. Lindsey had been seeing Valerie for a few weeks when her date made a late night confession that immediately killed the vibe. "She told me how she used to smuggle drugs into the country. I asked her if it was meth and she just winked at me," she said. Lindsey had already decided Valerie was a "shitty dog owner," but the meth smuggling was a deal breaker.
For Corey, it was an abrasive EDM rock song his date had produced that filled him with antipathy. "It was the most god awful song I'd ever heard, and it was about her, too," he told me. "At this point, she had already ghosted me for a week and I was kind of bummed about it but hearing the song made it all better. I thought, 'Oh, wow, well at least I don't have to pretend to like this.'"
For others, though, SRS describes a self-defeating tendency that attaches itself to otherwise perfectly serviceable relationships. "It wasn't until my senior year in high school when I had a chance to observe a pattern," recalled Stephanie. "Every time I started dating someone new and they stopped being unattainable and started being reciprocating and vulnerable, they immediately became disgusting for a period of anywhere between one week to thirty days."
Stephanie says she now doesn't sweat it when she feels disgusted by a new lover, knowing the feeling will eventually pass. When she dated a charming Bostonian whose accent had suddenly become a liability, she "waited two weeks, faked happiness, and the repulsion evaporated. Just like that."
"I didn't even realize that this happened to other people until I gently proposed my repulsion theory to several close girlfriends," she added. "It's more common than you'd think."
*Names have been changed.