I became intimate before telling him I have herpes—Now what?

Dear Alice,

I recently started dating a man. On the first date, we became intimate (which I did not plan on happening). The day after, I told him that things moved too fast and that maybe we should get to know each other before becoming intimate again. My big concern is that I have genital herpes, and have been faced with the problem of becoming intimate before sharing that I have herpes. I came up with a plan on how to share this info, but it didn't happen in this particular relationship. Now, I don't know what to do because I am worried that I have shattered the trust in this relationship. Should I just walk away from it and use it as a lesson on how to approach a relationship next time or tell him?

Thank you for your help,
Indecisive one

Dear Indecisive one,

Plans don't always go according to schedule. Things may go further or faster than expected, and your plans may fall by the wayside. It’s clear that you care for your partner’s well-being. That being said, it’s not too late to disclose your health status. Continuing to withhold this information while he engages in sexual activity will keep him in the dark about his own status longer, which will only increase the likelihood that he might unknowingly pass it to others in the future. Disclosing to your partner would involve admitting to your oversight and expressing your regret, as well as forgiving yourself and moving forward.

If you decide to tell him, it’s good to have a comprehensive understanding of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) so you can provide him with reliable information when the time comes. You can explain that genital herpes is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected person. The risk of transmission is highest when the infected person has an active outbreak, particularly if they develop sores; that said, you can still infect your partner even if you're asymptomatic. While condoms do help lower the risk of transmission, they don’t offer complete protection against the virus.

While there is no cure for genital herpes, it can be treated with antiviral medication such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. These pills are considered safe for long-term use, and they're used to help sores heal during an initial outbreak, lower the risk and frequency of outbreaks, ease the severity and duration of symptoms during recurrent outbreaks, and reduce the chances of passing the virus on to partner(s). A health care provider will determine the right course of treatment depending on the person's sexual activity, medical history, the severity of the condition, and the frequency of the outbreaks.

Furthermore, if he does end up getting herpes, it increases the risk of contracting other STIs because they can be transmitted more easily through contact with open or leaking herpes sores during sex. These sores can transfer the virus from the genitals to different parts of the body, such as the mouth, if contact is made. If your partner is immunocompromised, a herpes outbreak could cause more severe symptoms than normal, such as swollen lymph nodes and flu-like symptoms.

Having a positive STI status may seem like it places more responsibility on you to be forthcoming about your sexual history, but as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. It’s also your partner’s responsibility to protect his own health by choosing to engage in safer sex. When engaging in sexual activity it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution and use barrier methods, especially if partners haven't discussed their sexual history.

Now, you mentioned that you already had a plan in motion to talk about your herpes status. It’s a good idea to talk one-on-one in a private setting where you both feel comfortable. Using your own style and choice of words will make the conversation more natural and authentic, but if you’re looking for a lead in, consider saying something like, "I know last time things moved pretty quickly. Neither of us got a chance to talk about what happened, how we felt, or what we might have been exposed to. I have genital herpes and I want you to know if we plan to be intimate again."

It’s understandable to be nervous about your partner’s reaction but try to think about what was helpful to you when you first learned about your herpes diagnosis. The more comfortable and prepared you are, the more likely you are to put him at ease. However, you ultimately have no control over his response or reaction, so be patient and give him space to feel however he feels. Sharing information and resources with him may be a valuable way to educate him and reduce his worries (if he has any). The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) publishes resources on herpes and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website is also a good resource for more information on genital herpes. 

If you two decide to continue your relationship, you might suggest that he get tested for STIs before you become intimate again (and offer to go with him!), and that you both make a commitment to get tested regularly to protect each other’s health. It’s also possible that he needs time to deal with any emotions that come up first. If he decides that this is a dealbreaker, it’s still a good idea for him to get tested. Knowing his status will allow him to be proactive about managing the spread and symptoms and protect his future partners if he tests positive, but ultimately, the choice to get tested is up to him.

At the end of the day, it’s your decision whether you disclose your status or not. If you think the relationship could go somewhere, then it’s a good idea to share your status sooner rather than later. However, even if you aren’t planning to continue the relationship, it’s still worth telling him so he knows he might have been exposed. If you do decide that this guy isn't a match for you, it’s better to leave with some lessons learned than having done nothing at all, as these will help inform and prepare you for the next time.

Last updated Feb 17, 2023
Originally published Feb 11, 2005