A survey this past summer revealed something that we at the Herpes Resource Center are well aware of: it’s not necessarily easy talking about genital herpes with a partner. According to the results of the survey, about two-thirds of adults with genital herpes said revealing their infection to a partner was “troubling” to them. From our vantage point, anxiety over having “the talk” with someone for the first time is a common concern. We’ve heard from any number of people who are either newly diagnosed, or returning to the dating scene for the first time since diagnosis, and are looking for advice on the best way to broach the topic.
When you think about it, this shouldn’t be surprising—sharing any kind of personal details about yourself for the first time can be awkward or difficult, particularly in a new relationship. Many worry about a negative reaction and fear possible rejection. For this reason, some may only seek out partners who also have genital herpes, perhaps through a local support or social group, or through an online forum or dating site (see Charles Ebel’s opinion piece for a discussion of online dating services), so the issue becomes moot. While this approach may work for some, your relationship options needn’t be limited by genital herpes.
From the stories that we’ve heard at the HRC, most people will react well, and will appreciate your honesty and respect for the relationship and their wellbeing. While a negative reaction is possible, this doesn’t necessarily mean a bad ending. If that person values you as an individual and is interested in a relationship, something as minor as herpes shouldn’t stand in the way. If it does, then that person obviously wasn’t a good fit in the first place.
The best way for couples to deal with herpes is to talk about it openly and make decisions together. So what’s the best way to start the conversation? There’s no one, single approach that works best for all people, but there are some guidelines that can help make this easier.
Do Ask, Do Tell
By disclosing your infection to your partner, you’re not only establishing a tone of trust—good for any healthy relationship—but you’re also taking an important step to reduce transmission. According to one study of discordant couples (where one partner had genital herpes and the other did not), there was a significant delay in transmission when the positive partner disclosed his or her infection. The average time for transmission was 60 days for those who didn’t disclose, compared to 270 days for those who did—regardless of other factors like condom use and frequency of sexual activity.
Makes sense logically—by being aware and taking precautions, you can help reduce your partner’s risk. But make sure that you keep your own health and risk in mind as well. So this conversation should be a two-way street, where you discuss your partner’s sexual health, and possible STIs, as well. (You might be surprised. This may be the point where you discover your partner has herpes too, and has been waiting for the moment to tell you.)
Timing is Key
While there’s no specific timeline that dictates the best time to talk about herpes with a new partner, the discussion should ideally occur before any sexual activity has taken place. This doesn’t mean you have to launch into this on the first date necessarily. Once the relationship is heading in the direction of sexual activity, and you’ve both had the opportunity to get to know each other and establish a degree of trust, you should feel more confident sharing this personal information. And that is the point—this is personal information like any other, and needn’t be shared with everyone, but rather those you’ve come to know and trust.
Once you feel ready to open the discussion, you might want to look for logical ways to broach the subject. Sometimes public service announcements about sexual health or subjects closely related can open doors to discussions about herpes. Place, of course, is important too, as you’ll need privacy and uninterrupted time to devote your attention to this conversation. So even though a movie trailer seems to provide the perfect lead in, a crowded theater is probably not the best venue.
Keep it in Perspective
First and foremost, it’s important to keep in mind the relative importance of all this. If you were asked to describe yourself and highlight the most important aspects of you and your life, herpes wouldn’t make the list. It’s something you deal with, but it doesn’t define who you are as a person.
In the grand scheme of things, genital herpes is an inconvenience for most couples—nothing more than that. Keep this fact in mind and keep your language positive. Your attitude will also have a lot of influence on how the news is received. If you are positive and upbeat, it’s more likely your partner will adopt the same attitude. Try not to let the anticipation of a possible negative reaction affect the delivery of your message.
Remember too that this should not be treated as a “confession” or some kind of admission that you have done something wrong. It is what it is—a sexually transmitted infection. The bottom line is that sexual activity is a natural act that most everyone will have at some point in their lives. With sexual activity anywhere by anyone, there is some level of risk.
If you were planning to ask your boss for a raise, would you simply charge in her office and improvise? You might, but this probably wouldn’t be the best strategy. The same goes for having a discussion with your partner. In both cases, the prospect can be intimidating, so it’s best to have some key points prepared.
Experts say that it is best to think through what you’re going to say before the conversation. You can role-play with a friend and try out some conversation starters. Something as simple as ““I really like you and enjoy being with you, and I want to get closer to you. Let’s talk about safer sex” can lead the way. The point is to think about what you want to say ahead of time so you’ll be more comfortable and confident when you talk to your partner—not rehearsed, but natural.
Have Resources at the Ready
Keep in mind that your partner may have misconceptions about herpes and the information you share may be very new. When you were first diagnosed, you likely had a lot of questions and went looking for more information. Now that you’re educated, you can guide your partner toward reliable sources, and maybe have some information on hand (from ASHA’s website, for example). Be prepared to answer questions and address any misinformation. Education is a key step for any potential partner.
So how will your partner react? Most will react well, but no matter what the reaction, you have taken a brave and responsible step by having the conversation. In the end, people will like you and be attracted to you for the person you are, whether or not you have herpes.