Talking With a Partner
What If A Partner Has Herpes

In a new relationship there is always risk. Usually this risk is emotional. When a partner has herpes, there is additional risk that you could get it, too. You may have concerns about risking infection for a relationship that may not last. You'll want to understand how to lower the risk for infection and ways to talk with your partner. Remember, if you have been sexually active you may already have been at risk for herpes. You may have it and not know it. Because herpes can be spread without symptoms it can be hard to know when a person became infected and who infected them. In fact, if you and your partner have had sex, it's possible your partner got herpes from you.

Get tested and know the medical treatments available for your partner.

In an intimate, sexual relationship with a person who has herpes, the risk of contracting the infection will never be zero. Some couples have sexual relationships for years without transmitting herpes just by avoiding sexual contact during outbreaks, using condoms regularly and using suppressive antiviral therapy to reduce outbreaks. Couples deal successfully with herpes all the time. For many, it is a minor inconvenience. Since herpes does not pose a serious health risk, some couples choose not to use condoms in a long-term relationship. If you're not sure about the relationship or you're uncomfortable with the risk, consider delaying intimacy for a while. Get to know your partner better and give yourself time. Remember, all relationships face challenges, most far tougher than herpes. Good relationships stand or fall on far more important issues--including communication, respect and trust.

Social and Emotional Impact of Herpes

For most people, the social and emotional impact of herpes is greater than the physical distress. At least in the beginning. Society tends to have a judgmental attitude about sexually transmitted diseases. Many people feel embarrassed or isolated after they are diagnosed. With time, accurate information and support, most people put herpes in perspective. A diagnosis of herpes can challenge our personal view of sexuality and health. Many people can be uncomfortable talking about it. Once you or a partner knows more, know the facts, you may find your views changing.

Why Tell A Partner

Some people don't tell, or don't tell every partner. Some don't tell until after they've had sex. It's important that herpes does not become a secret--for many reasons.

Once you and your partner know the facts, you may find your views changing.

  • Telling your partner allows this person to make an informed choice. When you tell, you are showing respect and concern for his or her well being. Your honesty may build intimacy and trust.

  • Telling your partner helps prevent transmitting herpes. If you keep herpes a secret, you might invent lies and half-truths to postpone sex during outbreaks. And, you give your partner a shared stake in making decisions together about how to reduce risk.

  • Telling your partner can begin an important discussion about sexual health. Herpes is one of over 20 sexually transmitted infections. Others have more serious health consequences. Your honesty encourages your partner to share sexual history and health information with you.

  • Telling your partner can prevent future misunderstandings or threat of legal action.

How to Tell A Partner

Know the Facts

First, have you come to terms yourself with having herpes? If you haven't, then it's unrealistic to expect another person to understand. How well informed are you? Do you know the basic steps to reduce the risk to your partner? Do you know the facts about herpes? You want to feel confident and knowledgeable before you can explain the infection to someone else.

Be prepared by reading the ASHA-published and award-winning book, Managing Herpes, subscribe to the quarterly newsletter, the helper, or order the Herpes Facts Pack, that includes the newsletter and book plus the booklet, Understanding Herpes.

Have educational materials on-hand for your partner to read. Be prepared to answer questions. If you don't know the answer to a question, find out. Contact the National Herpes Hotline at (919) 361-8488, your local health department, your doctor or your local HELP Group for support.

When to Tell A Partner

This can be a sensitive topic and knowing when to raise it is important. It's best to let the friendship develop first, but it's best not to wait until after you've become sexually intimate. Then, the issue can become tangled in feelings of anger and mistrust. Remember, telling a partner about herpes is only a small part of relationship building. This disclosure can enhance your honesty and openness, and demonstrate your ability to have and maintain an intimate relationship.

  • Try role-playing with a trusted friend or relative. Practice saying the words out loud.
  • Choose a neutral setting during a time when you won't be distracted or interrupted. Be natural.
  • Speak with confidence. You are not lecturing or confessing. You're sharing personal information.
  • Remain calm. If you are upset, a partner might think it's worse than it is. Remember your delivery and body language becomes your message, too.
  • Expect your partner to be accepting and supportive. You're doing the best thing for both of you. People tend to behave as you expect them to.

A Simple Message: How to Start and What to Say

Words can be clumsy and awkward. Choose your own words and your own way of telling a partner. You'll find the way that's most comfortable for you.

  • "I want to talk with you about something that's important to me. Have you ever had a cold sore or fever blister? A type of virus causes cold sores and fever blisters. I have this virus. Only, instead of getting the sores near my mouth, I get them in my genital area."
  • "I really feel I can trust you and I want to tell you something very personal. Last year, I found out I have genital herpes. It's not as serious as it sounds. Can I tell you about it?"
  • I really like you and enjoy being with you, and I want to get closer to you. Let's talk about safer sex."

How Will A Partner React

Some may overreact. Some won't bat an eye. Since many people have genital herpes or have heard about it, many people won't be shocked or surprised. Whatever happens, try to be flexible. Give your partner time to respond, think about what you've said and absorb the information. Remember when you first found out? It took you time to adjust, too.

You don't have to be overly concerned about protecting a partner's feelings. And, you may want to reconsider a relationship where you have to do all the emotional work. A safer sex discussion might help you find out if this partner is a good candidate for your love and attention.

A few people are going to react negatively. It won't matter what you say or how you say it. Remember, these people are the exception not the rule. If a partner decides not to pursue a relationship with you because you have herpes, it is best to know this now. There are many people who will be attracted to you for who you are--with or without herpes.

Most people react well. They appreciate your approach, honesty and maturity in addressing an important health issue. Remember to put herpes into perspective: it is an annoying, recurrent skin condition that is treatable and manageable--no more, no less.