Ashley Manta facetiously refers to it as “dropping the H-bomb” — telling new partners that she has herpes. She’s used to it now, but when she was first diagnosed nine years ago, it didn't feel so normal. She was convinced “no one would want to be with someone who has herpes.” Jenelle Marie Davis, founder of The STD Project, agrees. She says that talking to new partners about the diagnosis is “the biggest fear people have going forward. It’s not the physical symptoms people worry about, it’s how they’re going to date.”
But they do date, and like all mental hurdles that at first seem insurmountable, you too will figure out how to make the big reveal. Nearly one in six people aged 14 to 49 in the U.S. has HSV-2, the virus that most often causes genital herpes, so you’re far from alone in tackling this diagnosis. And you can get back out there. Ahead, here’s how.
Decide whom you want to date.
If you’ve just been diagnosed, you have a lot of options. You can continue to date the same way you did before the diagnosis, but you’ll have to tell people about your diagnosis before getting sexual with them. Or, if you’re not ready to have this talk, you may want to join adating site just for people with herpes. "That can be a nice jumping off point," Davis says. "From there, once you get your feet wet, you can branch out to the general population." Or you may decide to take a break from dating right now. There is no one answer that’s right for everyone — your job is to figure out what feels best for you.
Consider telling your date right away.
There are conflicting views about when to tell — and of course, you don’t need a one-size-fits-all strategy here. You can decide based on each situation. "I always have the herpes talk on the first date," Manta says. "I find it’s easier to get it all out there so if it’s a deal breaker, no one’s time is wasted."
…Or opt to wait until it’s more serious.
The other option is to wait until you know the person better and have formed a connection. But you do need to reveal before you’ve gone beyond first base (kissing). "The way I see it, no one sits down at the first date saying, 'I’ve been to jail, I don’t make a lot of money, I can be really insecure, my mom is crazy,'" Davis says. "People don’t usually put all their cards on the table from the get-go, and why should that be any different just because you have herpes? Besides, the deeper someone’s connection is with you, the more likely [it is that] he or she might see your diagnosis as just one small thing about you — rather than who you are as a person."
Tell your partner before sex — but if you’ve already had sex, still tell your partner.
Ethically, you should tell your partner you have herpes before things get heated. "The problem is, we don’t always plan for things to move forward sexually the way they do," says Edward W. Hook III, MD, and director of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "There are relationships that start in a more passionate way — but even if you’ve had sex once, that doesn’t mean your partner necessarily contracted the virus, in fact, statistically herpes is unlikely to be transmitted following a single exposure. So even if you hooked up pre-disclosure, you should still tell your partner about your diagnosis, and discuss the precautions you can take going forward to avoid transmitting the virus."
Stay calm and choose the right time.
Sure, it can be completely nerve-wracking to have this conversation. But, Manta says, "It’s really important to be calm and not lead with nervousness or shamefulness. If you’re staring at the ground umming and ahhing, your partner might think that what you’re about to reveal is a huge deal." Also, it’s best to have this conversation in a place where he or she feels comfortable, the two of you have some privacy, and there are no distractions.
The best way to share the news is to just be matter of fact. "I tell them very calmly, 'There are a couple of things you need to know if you want to have sex with me,'" Manta says. Then, she suggests, tell your future partner you have herpes, and explain what that means for you. Manta often immediately offers up that she’s on very effective medication that can suppress outbreaks; in fact, she can often go for six months or even a year without an outbreak.
And the truth is, just because she has herpes doesn’t mean she’ll definitely pass it on to her partners. There are many things you can do to reduce the risk of infecting a new partner. "You can significantly reduce the risk if you take viral meds, use condoms, and don’t have sex during outbreaks," Dr. Hook says. "Taking antiviral meds alone reduces the likelihood of spreading it by more than 50%. All of us who regularly take care of patients with genital herpes will tell you that we have lots of patients who have been involved in long-term sexual relationships for years who have not transmitted their infections to sex partners."
Be prepared for their reaction.
What’s the most common reaction to this news? It’s often not rejection like you may fear, it’s actually just confusion. "The typical reaction is uncertainty," Manta says. "They’re not turned off, but you can see the mental battle in their eyes where they’re weighing everything they’ve ever learned about herpes against the person sitting in front of them. When I see that happening, I ask if there are any questions I can answer." Remember, this should be a conversation and not a monologue. "Let your partner ask questions, talk about what they know about the virus, and express their feelings. This can help him or her feel less anxious," Davis says.
Let them think about it.
"This can be a lot to process, so give them time to chew on the information, and to do some research on their own." says Davis, who recommends leaving shortly after the initial conversation and giving your partner some space and alone time. Make it clear they don’t need to tell you anything right away. They may need time to think it over, and learn more. Remember, their first reaction may not reflect their true feelings, or indicate a decision about your relationship.
Understand a bad reaction.
Of course, less-than-positive reactions do happen, even if they are not the norm. “Some people say, ‘That’s not going to work for me,’” Manta says. "And if they do, I get curious and ask them what it is about herpes that makes them uncomfortable."
Other people are less diplomatic, she says, and you might get a reaction along the lines of "That’s gross," or even worse, "You’re gross." But the few times that has happened to Manta, she’s reminded herself that while rejection always stings, this type of rejection isn’t about her as a person, it’s about her potential partner’s feelings about herpes. "If you get rejected by someone based on one detail about you, chances are that type of person won’t make for a good partner anyways," Manta says.
Remember your value.
A herpes diagnosis can be a lot to take in, and a lot to deal with. "But don’t worry, you'll learn that people will still want you, and they'll be willing to consider the risk, because you are not your infection," Davis says. "It doesn't define your character, it doesn't say anything about what kind of partner you will become, and it doesn't have to limit your relationships."
If you’re in search of other resources, here are a few ideas: Here, you’ll find an online support group focused on dating with herpes. For more information for talking about STIs, click here. And to learn more about STIs in general, check out the National Coalition for Sexual Health.
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