Relationship ended and left me with warts

Dear Alice, 

I recently broke up with my girlfriend of two years. There were many positive aspects to the relationship and I thought we were going to get married. There were some major negatives, too, which I am now having to cope with on my own, and I'm having a hell of a time. First of all, there were times when she was emotionally abusive towards me, criticizing me for no good reason or becoming impatient or even nasty over minor details. Another problem is health-related. I wanted to be extra cautious with her, as she had a number of less-protected relationships throughout her life (I think she had low self-esteem.). She was tested for HIV when we started dating and was negative. We continued to use condoms although she really didn't want me to, and would act hurt or confused that I did. Fairly early in the relationship (but after the HIV test), she developed warts, presumably from her last boyfriend (who was also HIV-). She was treated and has not had a recurrence since then. 

However it continued to be a struggle for me. She was always acting like condoms = non-commitment or distaste for the other person, and though I generally kept using them, there were times when she would actually sort of "force herself" upon me. Maybe that is unusual for a woman to do to a man, and it wasn't violent or anything, but it was definitely a case of some physical and psychological manipulation to get me to do things I wasn't comfortable with. The worst is now I understand some of the feelings that made her do that. I have developed a few warts, which have since been removed. They were only around the base of the penis, so I don't know if I got them because the condom didn't protect me at first or if they were from a time when she did not have visible warts, but she "coerced me" into unprotected sex. It has now been almost two years since she first developed them and 1 year since I did (I had one small recurrence, as well, a few months ago). She was recently checked with no sign of them. 

Now that we are no longer together, these issues are looming over me. I feel like an awful person, like garbage. I can't deal with the idea of the disease. I have been seeing a therapist, but while intellectually, I can analyze my situation, emotionally I continue to feel horrible. I don't want to pass on the virus, but now I, too, feel like a leper and an "untouchable" who no one would ever want to go near. I have read tons of info on it and talked to several doctors and all I get is confused. 

Alice, will I ever be normal? I know I have so much to give to the right person. But I feel ashamed, embarrassed, and depressed. I don't talk to my friends about this because they are as inexperienced as I and, as one would normally expect, STDs are alien to them. I feel like that would distance me from them and all they could offer is pity. Alice, I don't want to be pitied. I want to be valued. Will my life ever be happy, or have I destroyed myself? 

—Feeling Lousy in Nowhere 

Dear Feeling Lousy in Nowhere, 

In today’s digital world, navigating the endless amount of information full of contradictory statements and conflicting advice can definitely leave you wondering what to do! Here are some facts about genital warts that might help clear up some of your confusion. Genital warts are one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI) in the United States. Most cases are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is typically transmitted by skin-to-skin contact with an infected partner. Often, an infection is most contagious right before or during an outbreak. However, an infection can still spread even when warts aren’t visible. Although the virus remains in the body forever and therefore can’t be cured, the good news is that symptoms can be managed. There are a variety of treatments available which can offer relief from the discomfort that can be experienced with warts (e.g., burning, itching, or bleeding). Topical medications, surgery, electrocautery, and laser treatment have all shown success in temporarily removing warts. 

Many people report feeling angry, ashamed, or dirty after learning of their STI diagnosis. It’s also not unusual to feel anger or resentment toward the sexual partner who you believe may have passed the STI on to you, especially when you’ve taken all the necessary precautions to avoid contracting one. That being said, having an STI doesn’t mean the end of your sexuality and happiness. Many people who have STIs are living healthy, vibrant, and satisfying sexual lives. You can choose to maintain a sexually fulfilling life, while also protecting yourself and your future sexual partner(s). A few tips for doing so include: 

  • Having a conversation. Informing your partner(s) about your diagnosis, although potentially difficult, can create an open channel of trust and communication which can often greatly contribute to a healthier future relationship. 
  • Using protection. Condoms or dental dams may reduce the risk of transmission. However, it’s important to note that protection isn’t 100 percent effective even if used consistently and correctly every time. That said, it’s recommended for you and your partner(s) to test regularly as an additional precaution. 
  • Getting regular check-ups. Getting tested regularly may also allow you and a health care provider to monitor your condition for worsening symptoms. 
  • Being aware of outbreaks. Taking extra precautions and avoiding having sex if there are visible warts can reduce the risk of infection for your partner(s). 

Hopefully, reaching out and writing this letter has provided some solace for you. Break-ups can be difficult, and sometimes the emotions are so strong that it’s hard to sort things out and carry on with your daily life. If you feel you experienced sexual coercion, it’s important to remember that it can happen to anyone, at any age, and in any type of relationship. Those who have experienced it experience similar feelings to the ones you’ve described. It may be reassuring to know that you aren’t alone and there are many different steps you may choose to take to begin healing from this experience including: 

  • Finding a support system. Creating a support network comprised of people such as family, friends, members of established support groups, and mental health professionals may offer you comfort and support during challenging times. It can be difficult to initially reach out for support but remember that often these individuals are there to support you and want to help. 
  • Creating a safety plan. Having a safety plan for different scenarios, whether it’s future conversations with a partner about boundaries or run-ins with your ex, can provide you with a sense of control and protection. 
  • Setting boundaries. Setting boundaries for yourself or with your friends, family, and future partner(s) after your relationship may be wise. This can allow you to open channels of communication with others so that you can create a more comfortable healing space and protect your mental well-being. 
  • Prioritizing self-care. Allowing yourself time to heal and practice self-love may help to build your overall confidence and give you time to process what happened. Some of these actions can include doing your favorite hobbies or activities, journaling to process your emotions, and repeating healing affirmations. 
  • Consider asking for help if you feel overwhelmed. Resources, including the National Sexual Assault Hotline, local support groups, or health care providers, may be able to better help you process your emotions and provide you with support and guidance as you begin healing. 

You mentioned that you’ve spoken with a therapist but continue to feel horrible emotionally. Is there something that you think is missing from your therapy sessions that you might want to discuss with your therapist? Being able to “intellectually analyze” the situation may help you in a different way from being able to process your emotions. You also mentioned not wanting to speak with your friends about your situation.  Have you considered their ability to provide you with emotional support outside of providing advice?  Is there anyone else outside of your friends that you may be able to talk with who you believe won’t act this way? Reflecting on these questions may help you understand what’s preventing you from getting the emotional support you seek. 

There’s no timeline for healing from past trauma and it can be a journey to work through the thoughts and emotions that may come along with it. Luckily, you’ve already taken steps to begin your healing journey such as meeting with a health care professional to get a diagnosis, talking with a mental health professional, and reaching out to Go Ask Alice!

Living with HPV doesn’t make you “untouchable” and you can still live a happy, sexually fulfilling life with an STI if that’s something you’re interested in having. Consider reaching back out to a health care provider to discuss a long-term treatment plan, find options to manage your symptoms, and get more information about how to minimize transmission with any potential future partners. You might also check out additional resources related to the social, sexual, emotional, and physical impacts of living with HPV as well as the importance of communicating and setting boundaries with future partners. 

Last updated Oct 06, 2023
Originally published Oct 20, 1995

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