How to tell a partner if you have genital herpes
Dr. Aysha Butt is the Medical Director of FROM MARS, and is a GP Partner at Woodcote NHS Medical Practice.
There are probably few conversations you want to have less than telling a partner you have genital herpes. It’s only natural to worry about it. Just the word herpes sounds bad, and there’s still a strong stigma around sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You might be scared that your partner will see you differently, that it’ll affect your relationship, or that you won’t be able to date if you have genital herpes.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s start with how to tell your partner.
The most important piece of advice – know what you’re talking about
OK, first things first. You have to be clear in your own head about what genital herpes is, what causes it, what symptoms it has, and how it’s transmitted.
Your partner probably won’t know much about it, so you need to be able to explain it clearly to take the mystery and the fear out of it. You have to able to answer any questions they have simply and with confidence if you’re going to be able to reassure them. If you’re unsure about any aspects of genital herpes, here are a few pointers to get you started.
Before starting any conversation, get tested and make sure you definitely have it. You should go to a sexual health clinic while you have symptoms. They’ll get you tested and can also explain the infection to you and give advice on talking to your partner.
Do I have to tell my partner?
Yes. Herpes is an STI, it can have painful symptoms, and once someone’s infected, it stays with them for life. Your partner has a right to know they have a risk of catching genital herpes if they have sex with you.
In the UK, if you don’t tell someone you have an STI and they contract it from you, you can be charged with a criminal offence, like intentional or reckless sexual transmission of infection, or even the more serious reckless grievous bodily harm.
Tell them early
If you’ve just started seeing someone and you’re worried about dating with genital herpes, you need to speak to them as early as possible. However, this isn’t really a first-date conversation. They’ll likely react to the news better if you’ve already built some sort of relationship. You do need to tell them early though, especially before you have any sexual contact. You need to give a new partner the opportunity to make an informed decision before they sleep with you.
If you’re already in a relationship, you need to tell your partner as soon as possible. You need to decide on any changes you may need to make to your sex life, and you don’t want to give them even a hint of an impression you’re keeping it from them.
Pick the right time and place
You should have the conversation when you both have time to talk it through, without any time pressures or other distractions. Don’t try and tell them while you’re rushing to leave for work in the morning or as they’re drifting off to sleep at night.
Pick somewhere where you’re both comfortable and can talk freely. Talking at home over a coffee on a weekend afternoon is probably going to be better than in a public place.
Set the tone of the conversation
You want to be clear and confident, and you also don’t want to talk about your infection as if it’s a huge problem. Don’t use overly negative words, and don’t open by saying something like, “I’ve got some terrible news for you,” or, “promise you won’t freak out,” as this sets the wrong tone, and telling someone not to freak out is the best way to actually make them freak out. Start the conversation by saying something like, “I’ve just had the results of a test, and I’ve found out I have an infection that causes genital herpes.”
Your partner may react emotionally. It might be a shock to them, they may not understand, they might be scared, and they may react badly. Let them. Try not to get emotional too though, don’t get defensive, as this will likely only make things worse. Stay as calm as you can and stick to the facts. You might need to give them some time to process it and think before you continue the conversation.
Talk about how your herpes infection will affect your sex life
After telling your partner what genital herpes is, what causes it, and what the symptoms are, you need to talk about your sex life. You need to be clear to them that there is a chance they’ll catch genital herpes from you, but that there are actions you can take to minimise the chances. Always try and follow these dating with genital herpes tips:
Don’t have sex when you have an outbreak of genital herpes
Genital herpes is highly contagious, and your partner is most likely to catch it when you have an outbreak of symptoms. Don’t have sex, including oral sex and foreplay, from when you first notice the symptoms until seven days after they’ve cleared up.
Use condoms when you have sex
You should use condoms even when you don’t have any signs of an outbreak, as the virus can be present in bodily fluids, like semen.
Use genital herpes treatments
You can take genital herpes medications, like valaciclovir, which can help limit the severity of outbreaks and clear them up quicker. They can even be taken to stop outbreaks from happening, reducing your chances of passing it on.
Dealing with rejection
You have to face the possibility that your partner may reject you. Even if you follow every piece of advice here, they may choose to stop seeing you. This can be painful, but it’s their right. Not everyone will reject you, though. Don’t assume they will. Genital herpes is one of the most common STIs, and many, many people who have it enjoy fulfilling sex lives.
If you feel depressed or anxious, it may help to talk to someone. You can ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health professional, or you can find one online through the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.
The bottom line is that telling someone you have a herpes infection won’t be an easy conversation. But by following the advice here, you give yourself the best chance of making it a success. You will have to make some changes to your life, but you can still date and have relationships if you have genital herpes.