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Ask the expert Herpes
Last updated December 29, 2019. 4 minute read

How to have the herpes talk with a new partner

“Particularly in situations where physical and sexual attractions are high, it’s important to have a direct conversation about herpes and any other STIs well before sexual contact takes place. That way, if a new partner isn’t willing to pursue a relationship due to the presence of an STI, this can be realized early on.”

Carla Marie 1 Red

Dr. Carla Maria Manly, PhD

Carla Marie Manly, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in relationship issues including sexuality and communication who has been practicing for about 10 years. Dr. Manly has also been running a 300-member weekly women’s support group for 10 years that addresses overall wellness issues including relationship and sexuality issues.

Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

Q.How to have the herpes talk with a new partner

A. It’s so normal and natural to want to avoid a conversation about STIs given a fear of being judged or rejected. Given that those with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) feel (and often are) stigmatized, just the thought of a conversation about herpes can induce anxiety. Yet, it’s important to be able to talk with a partner openly and honestly about everything.

But another way to think about it is this: you’ll have sex, watch sex (maybe), and think about sex—so why wouldn’t you talk about sex and all the important things that go along with sex, like STIs—especially with the person with whom you’re having sex? Sex is natural, and a normal part of life and STIs are extremely common. And, to quote Mr. Rogers, “Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” But if you’re unsure how and when to have this conversation, there are some ways to prepare and set the scene to help it go as smoothly as possible.

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When should you have the herpes talk?

Particularly in situations where physical and sexual attractions are high, it’s important to have a direct conversation about herpes and any other STIs well before sexual contact takes place. That way, if a new partner isn’t willing to pursue a relationship due to the presence of an STI, this can be realized early on.

How to make the conversation easier

Hiding an STI from a partner can lead to long-term negative consequences, such as feelings of anger and resentment. It’s always wise to simply be honest and, if a new partner is harsh or judgmental about the issue, strive to not take it personally. Just like any other medical condition, having an STI is a condition to be managed and not an issue that should be judged. Such conversations are better had in a relaxed, safe environment that is free of substances such as drugs and alcohol. And, in my clinical experience, there are some factors that can help this conversation go smoother.

Do your research and share your knowledge

Although we sometimes assume that people are educated about issues such as STIs, many individuals are not aware of the signs, symptoms, transmissibility, and long-term medical consequences of STIs. So, if you have an STI, be prepared to cover the basic points in a direct, honest way. Some people find that having a printout about the STI (from the doctor’s office or elsewhere) is helpful in the event a new partner might find additional information reassuring.

Come with an action plan for how to keep them safe

Your partner may feel far more at ease if you talk to them about what can be done to protect them from getting the STI and show that their health and safety is a consideration for you. With genital herpes, for example, it is important to let your partner know that no prevention method is 100% effective but that the consistent use of condoms can diminish the risk of transmission. And refraining from sex (oral, anal, and vaginal) during an outbreak (the time when the herpes virus is most contagious) also greatly reduces the risk of transmission. If your doctor has prescribed herpes medication to reduce outbreaks, let your partner know that you’ve taken this step. Honest details such as these can be very reassuring and illustrate you’re also considering the partnership from their perspective.

Don’t apologize for having herpes

Absolutely do not blame yourself or a former partner. And, do not make excuses for having this STI (or any other). Although it might be tempting to apologize for the STI, that’s unnecessary and can even be harmful to one’s self-esteem. Just as you wouldn’t apologize for contracting poison oak or the flu, an individual with an STI has done nothing that requires an apology. Instead, simply discuss the nature of the STI, what it entails in regard to being sexual, and any effects the STI may have on the partner. By discussing these issues—and any other points that seem relevant—in a direct and confident way, the new partner may feel more secure and accepting.

Be direct and confident in yourself

Many people I work with feel unworthy due to their STI when that absolutely isn’t the case. If you can, try going into this conversation after reminding yourself that your STI doesn’t define you or what you deserve. I coach people to role play with me so that they feel comfortable having this conversation with others. A good friend—or the bathroom mirror—can also provide the opportunity for practice. In addition, it’s important to have an open and honest attitude, along with a confident tone. Strive to be direct rather than evading the topic or going around in circles.

What if the conversation doesn’t go well?

Many people find that a new partner responds positively to STI information. Some people, however, don’t respond as well as their partner would hope. In some cases, this can be due to personal history, such as having been misled in the past about STI issues. Some people may be triggered by personal or social stigmas surrounding STIs. Other factors often come into play, such as a lack of information or a fear of how the STI might affect them personally.

It’s also important to consider that the new partner may be simply emotionally and mentally unprepared for the intimate nature of the unexpected news. As a result of the unexpected nature of the conversation, the partner’s instinctive response may be less than ideal for the person breaking the news. Although a new partner’s negative reaction might feel hurtful, it’s important to address the root causes of the response. For example, someone who has shared their STI status and has been met with a response they didn’t expect might say, “I know you didn’t anticipate this news, and I can see that this is stressful for you. I’d really like to know what’s going on for you right now.”

The initial negative response may shift as the partners openly and honestly discuss their feelings. In some cases, the connective nature of the discussion may even help the partners form an even stronger bond.

If strong negative emotions arise, it can be important to take a time-out to allow for self-reflection. Ideally, the partners are then able to talk in an open and honest way that normalizes STIs as a common part of life. If the new partner is upset and unwilling to proceed with the relationship, it’s important to remember that it isn’t about you as a person. Although feeling rejected is painful, it’s important to realize that, like any medical condition, it’s not the fault of the person with the STI. And, as I tell my clients who have lost partners as a result of sharing STI information, “It’s not you who was rejected; the person simply rejected the STI.”