Surprise, my partner gave me herpes!

Dear Alice,

The man I have been seeing for six months, and with whom I have fallen in love, has transmitted genital herpes to me; I was diagnosed only yesterday with a primary outbreak — very painful, indeed. There were times when it seemed he avoided/did not want intimacy, which was often puzzling, because he was usually very interested; however, now I suspect it was because he feared infecting me. That I now know he has herpes seems to explain a lot of the "distancing" behavior, but I wish he had been open and honest with me. I have not told him yet, and my feelings are in a state of turmoil. What is the best way to approach this? I really have feelings for him, and I know he has strong feelings for me.

Dear Reader,

It's great that you're taking time to think about how you are going to handle the situation rather than simply reacting to the circumstances. And of course you're feeling the way you are, having been diagnosed with herpes and suspecting that the man who you care deeply for is probably the one who passed it to you. Since you were just diagnosed yesterday, you might experience a range of emotions as you deal with your diagnosis. However, before you think about confronting your boyfriend, it's important for you to focus first on your health and well-being.

You want to make sense of how this happened by trying to find an explanation. In this process, it seems that you are focusing on the suspiciousness of your partner's distancing behavior. While it's possible that your partner has the herpes virus, and that he may have avoided intimacy out of fear of infecting you, there could be many other reasons — stress, fatigue, medications, medical conditions, lack of desire, depression, or just wanting to be affectionate in other ways — that he may not have wanted to be intimate.

Some people talk with their partner about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) before they are sexually active. This provides an opportunity for partners to disclose their sexual history or what they've been exposed to. However, some people choose not to disclose that they have or had an STI. Still others do not discuss STIs or protection at all.

It is unclear whether or not you ever had a discussion with your partner about either one of you ever having any STIs. In either case, these possible scenarios may relate to your diagnosis:

He has herpes and didn't tell you. If you had the conversation about STIs, then you may want to address issues involving trust.

He has herpes and doesn't know it. Some people who have herpes have small ulcers, blisters, and/or other symptoms during an outbreak. Others have herpes and do not know it because their outbreak is mild and goes unnoticed. It is also possible that the virus can be active and not cause any symptoms. This is called "asymptomatic shedding."

He doesn't have herpes. If this is the case, it is possible that you were exposed to the virus prior to your relationship with him and did not notice any symptoms, or that the symptoms did not occur until recently.

You can say something like, "I care about you very much and want to talk with you about something that is very important to me [or that I'm concerned about]... I went to a woman's health care provider the other day because I had pain and discomfort, and I was surprised to learn that I have herpes."

There are so many ways that this conversation can play out, and it's impossible to script the entire conversation. However, after saying what you need to say, you can pause and give him a chance to react and respond. Then, let him know how you are feeling... that you are confused and are trying to figure out how this happened. If at any point he is defensive, reassure him that you are just trying to understand how you were infected... that you care about him very much and that you know that he cares for you.

When you are ready to talk with him, find a time when you can both sit down in a "safe space," where you will not be distracted or interrupted. Remember that the keys are to be true to yourself and to be open to what your partner may say. If he cares about you as much as you think he does, you will be able to manage this challenge in your relationship. Then, you both can figure out what to do to minimize the risk of transmission in the future.

For more information about herpes, including talking with a partner and treatments, contact the following resources:

Hopefully working with your health care provider to get proper treatment, and talking with your partner to understand his side of the story will help you find some resolution and move forward.

Take care,

Last updated Apr 21, 2014
Originally published May 03, 2002

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