Many people feel panicked or embarrassed after testing positive for a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Because STIs are a taboo topic in most societies, many people feel alone in their diagnosis. Luckily, as more people become educated about sexual health and as treatments continue to improve, the stigma around having an STI is on the decline. Furthermore, having an STI is fairly common, with about half of sexually active Americans contracting an STI before age 25.1 Globally, there are more than 1 million sexually transmitted infections acquired every day.2 Therefore, when people tell their partners about having STIs, it is likely that their partner has also had an STI in the past, or at least knows someone who has.
Why People Should Tell Their Partners
Telling your partner that you have an STI can be a scary conversation to have. It is natural to feel anxious about having the conversation, but it is necessary to protect your current partner and any future partner you may have. When you first test positive for an STI, you must notify all sexual partners that you have had in the past and any that you may have currently. Oftentimes, people that have contracted an STI may not know about their condition without an official diagnosis, as they may not notice the symptoms or because the STI can be asymptomatic. Without treatment, STIs can be spread to more people and many STIs can cause permanent health problems, like infertility or cervical cancer. Even for those STIs that cannot be cured, like HIV and herpes, if people are aware that they have them, they can be controlled and their spread can be prevented. In the case of HIV, it can be life-threatening, and the sooner it is diagnosed, the longer one’s life expectancy is. If you are treated for a curable STI and your partners are not treated because you failed to inform them, you can be re-infected. Also, in some states in the United States it is illegal to refrain from disclosing a confirmed diagnosis to a sexual partner.1 Thus, it is imperative that people diagnosed with STIs tell their past and current sexual partners immediately.
Telling a New Partner About Having an STI
Telling a new partner that you have an STI can be intimidating. Many people worry that their new partner will want to end the relationship or may respond with anger or disapproval. Some people, especially teens, worry about rumors being spread about them.3 However, it is much better for partners to be warned in advance that you have an STI and to take precautions than to one day realize that they have contracted an STI from you. The latter situation is much more likely to result in a vindictive partner. Having this conversation is necessary and, oftentimes, maintaining an open and honest dialogue can increase trust and respect between partners.
It can be helpful for people with STIs to put themselves in their partners’ shoes and try to imagine how they might feel. It is a good idea to have the conversation in person rather than over text or email, especially if you intend on having a relationship with this person. This way, you can gauge the person’s reaction and respond appropriately.4 The place that you choose to have the conversation should have a comfortable and calm atmosphere.3 A good option is at your partner’s home, as it is private and likely a place of comfort for you and your partner. This allows them to react naturally and ask questions freely without worrying about how onlookers may perceive them.
Another good option is to have this conversation in a doctor’s office. This way, your doctor can answer all your partner’s questions confidently. Having a neutral third party can remove some of the stigma and keep the conversation very straightforward. Another option is first having a one-on-one conversation with your partner and then scheduling a follow-up conversation for the two of you to have with your doctor.
Timing is also important. Let your partner know that you have something to discuss. Do not bring it up in the midst of a sexually intimate interaction, as this can disrupt the mood and may warrant an angry response from your partner.5 Try to discuss it sooner rather than later, and definitely have the discussion before any sexual activity begins.
Try to be as direct as possible while having the conversation. Many people find it helpful to have a script prepared if they are especially nervous about having the conversation.4 One way to start the conversation is, “Before we have sex, I want us to talk about STDs and protection because I have an STD.”6 You can then share what kind of STI or STD it is, how long you have had it, or how you contracted it. Although you do not need to share every detail, the more open and honest you are in answering your partner’s questions, the more likely your partner is to trust you and feel comfortable. If it is incurable and permanent, like HIV or herpes, tell your partner this important information. If you are currently getting treated for a curable STI, tell your partner and state how long your doctor expects treatment to take.
Let the conversation proceed naturally. Be cautious of talking too much. Leave time for your partner to react and ask questions, and be sure to listen carefully. The conversation should be an open dialogue rather than a one-sided lecture.4 There is no one way that people react to hearing that their partner has an STI. Some may be panicked or shocked, some may have a lot of questions, and some may need time to think and do research on their own. It is understandable that after being so vulnerable in disclosing this information that you might want immediate reassurance from your partner; however, it is important to give your partner time to process the information on their own. Do not pressure your partner to make a decision on whether or not to continue the relationship right away. Rather, give your partner some space and allow them to come to a decision on their own time. You can say something like, “I figure you’d like to have some time to think this over.”3 Being straightforward like this is respectful and shows confidence.
Some partners may be quieter and can use some encouragement to ask questions. Discuss the symptoms of the STI and discuss how it can be transmitted. It may also be helpful to give your partner a booklet about the STI or recommend some informational websites that they can look at. If your partner has questions that you do not have the answers to, do not panic. Instead, simply say that you are unsure and suggest looking it up online together.
After giving your partner time to think, understand that your partner may not want to continue the relationship. Try not to take this personally, as it has nothing to do with your personality, but rather the situation concerning your sexual health. If you have already provided your partners with accurate information about your STI, given them space, and they do not want to continue the relationship, do not try and change their minds. Although it may be difficult to accept, it is important to respect your partner’s decision. It is understandable that someone would not want to put themself self at risk.7 If your partner is unwilling to remain in a relationship after hearing about your STI status, perhaps he or she is not a partner you are meant to be with. Partners that are willing to work around something like a positive STI status are more likely to be committed, reliable partners that want a lasting relationship regardless of the problems arise.
Although it can be hard to hear that someone you were excited about does not want to pursue the relationship, stay positive and reassure yourself that there are other people that you can connect with in the future. Congratulate yourself for doing the right thing and having the courage to have a difficult conversation. Remind yourself that many people with permanent STIs still have very successful relationships. Also, remember that you are not alone; for example, over 500 million people worldwide are estimated to have a genital infection with herpes.2
If you and your partner do decide to engage in sexual activity, use protection and utilize safer sex techniques. In the case of oral herpes, do not kiss or perform oral sex on your partner when you have an outbreak, as this greatly increases the risk of transmission. In the case of genital herpes, always use a condom and refrain from genital contact with any part of your partner’s body when you are having an outbreak. Until your STI is cured or you are noninfectious, you can try alternative intimate methods that will not spread the STI to the other partner. Depending on the location and type of STI, you can try kissing, dry humping, caressing, or manual stimulation with your partner. Trying new alternatives to sex or oral sex can keep your sex life interesting and exciting, while also protecting your partner.
Telling a Current Partner About Having an STI
Telling a current partner that you have tested positive can be especially difficult. If you worry that your partner may have given you the STI, keep in mind that many STIs can be asymptomatic for a period of time before showing symptoms. Thus, before jumping to the conclusion that your partner was unfaithful, understand that you or your partner could have unknowingly contracted the STI from someone else before your relationship began.3 If you discover that you have an STI while in a relationship with your partner, tell your partner immediately. It is necessary for you and your partner to receive treatment as soon as possible. If you are diagnosed with an STI and you are unsure how long you have had it, you need to inform your past sexual partners as well.
If you suspect that you have contracted an STI from your own infidelity, it is still imperative that you are honest with your partner and communicate that you have an STI. Regardless of the circumstances, it is important that you are direct with your partner. You can say, “I’ve been diagnosed with an STD, and I’m getting treated. You need to be tested to see if you need treatment as well.”3 It is normal for partners to be upset or angry, so prepare for this and try to imagine how you would feel if you were in your partner’s situation.3 Anger can often be a mask for fear, so be patient and try to avoid getting defensive.4 Try to remain calm and be understanding if your partner asks for space.
The best thing to do is to listen attentively to your partner’s concerns and answer his or her questions. Provide information about symptoms, long-term effects, and treatments. You can also recommend reliable websites where your partner can get more information.
If you have a curable STI like gonorrhea or chlamydia, reassure your partner by explaining that the infection is curable. The conversation may be more difficult for permanent conditions like herpes and HIV/AIDS; nevertheless, the conversation is necessary. In the case of herpes, you can explain how common this condition is. For example, about 1 in 8 people aged 14-49 in the U.S. have genital herpes. About half of people ages 14-49 in the U.S. are infected with the virus HSV-1, which is the usual cause of oral herpes. which are also called “cold-sores” or “fever blisters.” 2 You can also explain that symptoms are mild, as almost 90% of people with genital herpes do not know that they have it.2 You can also explain that there are medications available that reduce the severity and frequency of outbreaks. In the case of HIV/AIDS, the conversation can be especially difficult due to the life-threatening nature of the condition.
Telling a Partner That You Have HIV/AIDS
If you are anxious about disclosing your HIV status to your partner, or you worry that you could be injured after informing your partner, you can ask your doctor or local health department to help you inform past partners that they may have been exposed to the virus.6 This method is known as partner services and it is completely anonymous. It simply alerts people that they may have been exposed to the virus and should be tested.
In some states in America, it is against the law to fail to disclose your known HIV status, even if you use a condom and your sexual partner does not become infected.8 In England and Wales, if you are aware that you have HIV, have unprotected sex even though you understand how HIV is transmitted, do not tell your partner and then infect them, you can be prosecuted for reckless transmission.5
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many men with HIV have said that it is better to have a conversation about their status with a new partner earlier rather than later. They say that their partners have felt as though they were dishonest by withholding the information.6 Also, having a conversation early on can build trust. It can also prevent getting attached to a partner who is unwilling to be in a relationship with someone who is HIV positive.
Choose to have the conversation in a quiet, comfortable place where you can speak openly. It is best to plan out what you will say before you have the conversation. It can be helpful to have a list of resources to turn to if your partner asks a question that you do not know the answer to. If you are unsure about the answer to one of your partner’s questions, do not guess and risk misleading them.
Here are a few ways that you can start the conversation:
- “There’s something that I want to talk to you about. I have been living with HIV for 3 years now. Have you ever dated someone who’s HIV positive?”6
- “I really like you and want to keep spending time with you, but before we go any further, there is something I want to tell you. I’m HIV positive.”6
- “About a year ago, I was diagnosed with HIV. Ever since, I’ve been consistently taking my HIV medication. The virus is under control and at undetectable levels, and I feel healthy. We should discuss ways to keep each other safe. When was the last time you were tested for STDs?”6
Try to go into the conversation with confidence and be prepared to answer questions and discuss ways that you and your partner can have safer sex. If you are correctly using your medication and have an undetectable viral load, the chances of transmission are extremely low.5
If you have been diagnosed with HIV while you are already involved in a sexual relationship, you must disclose this information to your sexual partner(s). Having this conversation with a partner can be extremely emotional, but it is the most responsible decision for your partner’s health.
Disclosing this information as soon as possible is important. If your partner is told soon enough, he or she may be able to take post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is an HIV medication taken over the course of a month after possible exposure and it reduces the chance of getting HIV.5 Have your partner discuss this possibility with a doctor. If you have had unprotected sex recently, keep in mind that your partner may need to wait up to three weeks before the HIV test results are accurate.5
Telling your past, present, or future sexual partner(s) that you have an STI can be scary, whether the STI is curable or not. Plan ahead for the conversation by reviewing facts about your STI and creating a list of resources that you can tell your partner to check out for more information. Choose a private space to have the conversation and be sure to inform them of your status before you engage in sexual activity. Approach the conversation with confidence and empathy, and try not to get defensive if your partner reacts with anger. Although it is a difficult conversation to have, telling your partner that you have an STI is the right thing to do. Having the conversation can build trust in the relationship and allow your partner to make an informed decision before moving forward.
- “Statistics.” American Sexual Health Association. N.p., n.d. Web.
- “Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2018.
- Lancaster, Julia Brown. “Telling Your Partner You Have an STD.” TeensHealth TeensHealth.org, Nov. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2018.
- Weston, Louanne Cole. “When and How to Reveal You Have an STD.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2018.
- Peters, Anna. “Telling Sexual Partners about HIV.” Living with HIV. Terrence Higgins Trust, 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2018.
- “Conversation Starters.” Act Against Aids. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 Jan. 2017. Web. 27 Feb. 2018.
- Hallett, Stephanie. “How To Tell Your Partner You Have An STD.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 May 2017. Web. 27 Feb. 2018.
- “Talking About Your HIV Status.” HIV.gov. N.p., 13 Sept. 2017. Web. 27 Feb. 2018.
Last Updated: 27 February 2018.