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,

Finding yourself in a state of turmoil after receiving a genital herpes diagnosis just yesterday is a completely understandable response. Receiving a new diagnosis can bring up a wide range of feelings, and it can be even more complicated when you're trying to understand where it may have come from. Suspecting the man you have fallen in love with to be the one who transmitted the infection to you can, as you say, make it all the more painful.

You may want to make sense of how this happened and trying to find an explanation by focusing on the reasoning of your partner's distancing behavior is a logical next step. While it's very possible that your partner has the herpes virus and 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 may have contributed to him not wanting to be intimate in those moments. Before confronting him, it’s important to focus on your own well-being.

As you probably know, there are multiple strains of the herpes virus, which can make discussing it confusing. Whether a sore is herpes can usually be diagnosed visually by a medical professional; determining which strain or type it is requires further genetic testing. Genital herpes is usually associated with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), which is characterized by frequent, recurring outbreaks in the genital region. You mentioned this was diagnosed as a “primary outbreak,” indicating that this is a new herpes infection, and unfortunately, usually the most painful. It can be helpful to know that HSV-2 outbreaks tend to decrease in severity and frequency over time. If you do experience frequent outbreaks, your provider may suggest viral suppression therapy which can help reduce the frequency and intensity of them. While less likely, it's still possible to transmit herpes even without an open sore through viral shedding.

When you are ready to talk, find a time when you can both sit down in a private space where there will be minimal distractions and interruptions. Remember to be true to yourself and to be open to what your partner may say. You can begin the conversation with something like, "I care about you very much and want to talk with you about something that is very concerning to me. I have been experiencing pain and discomfort and when I went to my provider, I was surprised to learn that I have a primary genital herpes infection." After saying what you need to say, pause, and give him a chance to process and respond. Listen to his thoughts and concerns and then let him know how you are feeling: That you are confused and are trying to figure out how this happened. If he is defensive, you may want to reassure him that you are just trying to understand how you were infected. You can remind him that you care about him very much and that you know that he cares for you. 

When bringing this to him, one thing to keep in mind is that this may be very confusing for him if he has never experienced symptoms of genital herpes. Genital herpes may be asymptomatic or have such minimal symptoms that many people don't notice. While it's possible that he was aware of an infection, it's also possible that you'll be bringing news that surprises him just as much as you've been surprised. He may have some processing of his own to do, and it would be kind to give him space to react as he needs to. It's wise to approach this with a mindset of curiosity, rather than blame, as you may both be learning together. 

This can be an a difficult situation and may take more than one conversation to figure out. If talking by yourselves isn't proving effective, consider seeking guidance from a neutral third party or mental health professional. Ultimately, overcoming obstacles together can help strengthen relationships. There is the chance to improve communication and move through this together. Once you're both on the same page, you may consider visiting a medical provider together to coordinate treatment and care.

Good luck!

Last updated Nov 04, 2022
Originally published May 03, 2002

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