How to tell partner about herpes

Dear Alice,

When my boyfriend and I began our sexual relationship, he insisted on using condoms. I gratefully agreed because I felt it then wouldn't be necessary for me to tell him about my STD — herpes. Now, two months later he's decided that he "trusts" me enough to stop using the condoms. I don't see any way I can keep the relationship, even if he can handle the STD part, if I tell him I've been lying over the past two months. Do you have any advice? I don't want to lose him, but I don't want to be responsible for giving him any diseases either.

Dear Reader,

Sounds like you're still coming to terms with your herpes diagnosis. It also sounds like you’re feeling guilty about not talking to your boyfriend about your diagnosis earlier. While you can't change the fact that you didn't tell him before you started having sex, you can begin to think constructively about how to deal with the situation you're in right now. And, you can learn from what has happened to prevent similar situations in the future. Talking to a partner about your herpes diagnosis can be difficult, but communication could actually improve your relationship in the long run. Read on for some tips that might make approaching this subject with your boyfriend a bit easier.

To start off, it takes a great deal of courage (and even practice) to disclose your sexually transmitted infection (STI) status to others, especially a new partner.  Ideally, it’s best to have this conversation with potential sexual partners before you start having sex because not telling them can lead to an increased risk of infection for your partner, even if you’re using condoms — condoms don’t cover all of the affected skin that could potentially transmit herpes and other STIs.

If you’re unsure about how to bring the subject up, you might start off by saying: “I know we've had sex before, but now that we're talking about not using condoms, I want to talk to you about my diagnosis...” Reader, keep in mind that there’s no set script for this conversation, but with that being said, here are a few tips from the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA)  for making the conversation go smoother:

  • Be prepared. Pick a time when both of you will be relaxed for this conversation. Choose a private place with few, if any, distractions. Have information about your diagnosis, how it’s transmitted, its prevention and treatment, and allow him to ask questions. A solid base of knowledge about herpes can make it easier for you to tell a partner — the more you know, the less you fear; and, the more you can allay your partner's fears. If he asks a question and you’re unsure of the answer, look it up together. There are a number of resources available for you to learn about herpes, such as Planned Parenthood.
  • Be positive. Starting out on a positive note can set the tone and mood for the conversation and your partner may take the news better. You might start off with “I’m really happy with our relationship…” or “I really care about you…” A lot of stigma comes attached to an STI diagnosis. While you may feel ashamed or embarrassed, know that you're not the only one with this diagnosis and it doesn’t make you a bad or dirty person. If you’re able to work through some of these feelings beforehand, it may help you come off more positively and confidently when you’re talking to your boyfriend.
  • Be honest and direct. Beating around the bush during this conversation will just be frustrating for all involved. Be honest about what you do and don’t understand about your diagnosis and how you feel.
  • Be patient. This might come as a shock to your partner and he may not feel prepared to handle the news in that moment. If he needs space or time apart, respect his wishes. Just as this is a very difficult subject for you to bring up, it may be hard for him to talk about as well.

As with most difficult conversations, telling new partners becomes easier with time and a better understanding of the STI. You may also discover that herpes doesn't always negatively affect intimate relationships and your sex life as much as you originally feared it would. In addition to learning more about your diagnosis, working with a health care provider can help you learn to manage it, minimizing its impact on your life. As scary as it may seem right now, you can hope that this talk will lead to personal growth for you and open communication with your boyfriend (or future partners).

Best of luck,

Last updated Jun 03, 2016
Originally published Apr 04, 1997