When Sarit Luban, a 27-year-old writer from Boston starts dating someone new, there’s a conversation she has to have first.
Luban, who has genital herpes, says she has a couple of different approaches to disclosing her sexually transmitted infection. Sometimes she introduces herpes casually, as one of many facts about herself. Other times, she opens up the conversation by talking about STIs generally, and asking about the last time her partner was tested.
“I don’t apologize, and I don’t go into how I got it,” she says. “It can be as simple as, ‘Hey, I want to have sex with you. If you’re into that, I want you to know first that I have genital herpes.’ I like to give people space to ask questions, and I frame it as a discussion that we can have together.”
Luban has had some time to come to terms with this aspect of her dating life, but it hasn’t always been this easy. We don’t have models for how to have this conversation, she noted, and since it’s so taboo most people are overwhelmed by panic after a diagnosis.
“So many people, myself included, are diagnosed and terrified not necessarily because [having an STI] is so bad, but because it’s like entering this big unknown,” she said.
No matter how a sexually transmitted infection diagnosis comes up, it will probably bring with it a few uncomfortable emotions. But if you’re in a relationship — committed, casual or otherwise — the knowledge that you must now share your diagnosis with your partner is likely weighing heavily on your mind.
Don’t beat yourself up over these feelings — you’re not alone. After all, nearly half of American adults will contract an STI in their lifetimes.
Telling your partner you’ve been diagnosed may seem terrifying, but sharing the news honestly, directly and clearly will start the conversation off on the right foot.
Dr. Alyssa Dweck, a gynecologist in New York and author of the forthcoming book The Complete A to Z for your V, recommends getting straight to the point and giving your partner all the information they need to process the news.
Get right to the point
“We recommend a direct conversation with your partner,” she says. “Just let them know, ‘I’ve been diagnosed with this infection, I’m getting treated. You need to be treated [and tested] as well.’”
Depending on what state you live in, she added, your gynecologist may be able to expedite your partner’s treatment.
Dr. Tammy Nelson, a sex and relationship expert and author of The New Monogamy, agrees.
“Use simple language they can understand,” she says. “If you know how this happened, tell them. If you are as surprised as they are, be open about that. Tell them, ‘I thought something was strange, but honestly, I figured it was only a funny side effect of a medication I was on, so I didn’t think to tell you.’ Most people appreciate honesty and will relate to your naiveté, so don’t go into the conversation with any hidden agenda.”
If the infection is permanent, say so
If you’ve been diagnosed with something like chlamydia or gonorrhea, the conversation will be easier since treatment is available and those infections go away. If you have something like herpes or HPV, however—infections that have longer-lasting implications—the conversation may be more difficult.
“Honesty and trust should be expected on both sides,” Dweck said. “Especially for these infections where they’re not returnable [like herpes]…You can alter your sexual practices based on the potential for giving or getting an infection, so there’s something you can do about it.”
Consider having the conversation in your doctor’s office. Having a neutral third party in the room can help to make the conversation more straightforward, and remove some of the stigma of an STI infection since your doctor will be able to answer your partner’s questions calmly and with confidence.
Dweck says that her patients sometimes bring their partners to her office to share their diagnosis, or to have a follow-up conversation about testing and treatment where the partner can ask questions.
Try not to get defensive with your partner
Approach the conversation from a straightforward, medical place, even if you suspect your partner is the source of your infection ― or even that infidelity was involved. Dweck and Nelson agree that your health is most important at this point, and you will need to have many conversations about your relationship. For now, though, both partners need to focus on getting tested and treated.
“Be empathetic and try not to be defensive,” says Nelson. “Remember, someone gave this to you, and you are probably angry with them. And keep in mind that anger is many times a cover up feeling for fear. Your partner is probably scared.”
Try to ease your stress as much as possible too, Nelson added.
“Stress compounds any infection in your body, so make sure you do what you need to do for yourself to make these conversations as caring and honest as you can, but take time to heal yourself as well,” she said.
An STI diagnosis doesn’t have to end a relationship
“Some couples survive an STI diagnosis just fine. And depending on the infection, some clear up with correct treatment and follow up,” says Nelson.
On the other hand, an STI diagnosis could provide an opportunity to end a relationship that’s been rocky. “Other infections and other couples may see this as the can opener that gets them out of a relationship that wasn’t working well anyway,” Nelson added.
Luban says that, in general, her partners have handled her disclosure well, though it helps to frame the conversation positively and not go into it anticipating rejection. She suggests giving your partner space to process the news and ask questions. And, she adds, “it can be helpful to have answers to some of people’s most common questions about [the STI] or be able to point them in the direction of a couple good resources if that’s something they need.”
Start the conversation early
If you don’t have an STI to disclose, why not open up that conversation early in your relationship by suggesting getting tested together? It can be a healthy way to bond with your partner; you’ll get to know each other better, and find out how your love interest handles difficult conversations.
As Nelson and Dweck point out, STIs are a reality, and talking about them openly and without shame is the best way to end the stigma.
“As I got more used to the idea that I had herpes and gained experience with talking about it, disclosing became easier and easier,” Luban says. “And, fortunately, everyone I’ve disclosed to has been super cool about it.”
Stephanie Hallett is a lifestyle writer in Los Angeles and weekend editor at HelloGiggles.