Safe Sex, Sex Q&A

How Do You Manage A Herpes Infection In A Long-Term Relationship?

May 27, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller

A reader submitted the following question:

“I have had one sexual partner and contracted herpes from him. Though I haven’t had sex in 5-7 years and no recurrence of symptoms, I am scared about it recurring and giving it to a partner who will freak out on me and curse me. I want to get married, but I am never going to be comfortable telling my partner about having this infection. What do you think I can do so that recurrence doesn’t occur and I can enjoy condom free sex with my partner?”

Thank you for sending in this question. Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—in fact, the CDC estimates that about 16% of the U.S. population has it. As a result, you are far from the only one out there who wants to know more about how to manage this infection, especially in the context of a relationship with a partner who doesn’t have it.

It’s clear from your question that you are well aware of the great deal of social stigma attached to herpes. In fact, herpes is one of the most stigmatized STIs there is and, because of this, contracting it can have a potentially devastating psychological impact—an impact so severe it often leads people to avoid disclosing their status to others and, sometimes, to avoid relationships and physical intimacy entirely.

In light of this, I’d recommend you start by seeking some perspective and support. Although it might not feel like it now, herpes isn’t the end of the world, and it certainly doesn’t have to mean the end of your love life or sex life.

Case in point: check out some of Ella Dawson’s writings on this subject, such as the provocative article she penned for Women’s Health last year entitled “Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes.” Alternatively, check out her recent TEDx talk on the same subject.

I like Dawson’s approach because, like me, she’s all about promoting open and honest communication—and she’s found a great way to do it. Such communication is essential if you want to lay the groundwork for a happy and healthy long-term relationship.

I know you said you’d never be comfortable disclosing this information to a partner, but I hope that reading up on how others have managed this infection (and the positive outcomes they’ve experienced) will inspire you to rethink this decision.

If you continue to be worried about a potential partner’s reaction, something you might consider is using a dating service that’s designed for people who have STIs, such as Positive Singles. The goal of services like this is to match people who have the same infections so that they don’t need to worry about transmitting them to one another. It also takes the process of disclosing one’s status—something that many people find to be anxiety-inducing—and makes it a non-issue. You click a box, and that’s it. No need to find the “right time” or “right way” to tell a partner when using this dating method.

That said, it is certainly possible for someone with herpes to begin and maintain a relationship with a non-infected partner. The partners just need to be willing to communicate and to take some safety precautions to minimize risk of transmitting the virus.

Keep in mind that this risk can never be completely eliminated because it’s possible to spread this virus even in the absence of symptoms. Thus, disclosure should occur before engaging in any sexual activity, and it’s advisable to always use condoms during intercourse and dental dams during oral sex.

In addition, infected partners can take daily antiviral medications, such as Valtrex, which have been shown to be effective at reducing rates of symptom recurrence, as well as the severity and duration of outbreaks.

Again, though, communication is an essential part of infection management. For example, if the infected partner feels symptoms coming on, it is important that they are able to share this information and for the partners to agree to limits on physical intimacy until the symptoms have gone away.

To reiterate, having herpes does not mean that one must remain single and celibate forever. There’s absolutely no reason that this infection has to prevent you from having sex, starting a relationship, or getting married—just keep in mind that the keys to managing a herpes infection are education and support, communication, and safer-sex practices.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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