Contributed by Rebecca Smith, M.A., L.C.P.C., C.S.A.T.
Telling someone you have a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or infection (STI) is probably one of the hardest conversations you can have.* It gets even harder when it’s an STI that can’t be cured. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that even though young people ages 15-24 represent only 25% of the sexually-active population, they acquire nearly half of all newly diagnosed STIs. College students may think they are immune to getting an STI because everyone around them looks healthy, but many college students are facing the horrible facts that they have contracted an STI. Once you find out you have an STI, the conversation to let your partner or future partners know can be devastatingly hard.I have met with a few students who have STIs that can’t be cured. Genital human papillomavirus (HPV), Hepatitis B and C, herpes simplex virus 1 and 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2), and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can NOT be cured. That is why STI testing and using condoms every time you have sex is so important. In most cases, HPV and Hepatitis B or C won’t cause any long-term effects. HPV is usually fought off by the body within a couple of years, and it’s typically caught before it can cause cervical cancer in women through a pelvic exam. Only rare cases of Hepatitis cause long-term health effects. Herpes is harder for people to accept because it doesn’t go away, and it can be easily transmitted sexually even when a person isn’t having any symptoms. HIV is obviously more life threatening, and the news is often very unsettling. Having the conversation about STIs with your partner or future partners may feel impossibly hard, but the best way to deal with it is to say something as soon as possible.
If you’re already in a relationship, it can be terrifying to tell the person you love that you may have infected them with an incurable illness. Putting this conversation off will only develop trust issues and put a huge strain on the relationship. Go into the conversation with a calm demeanor and stick to the facts at first. After telling your partner the facts, you can share your own feelings and grief about finding out. Remember that grief has many stages—denial, bargaining, anger, depression and finally acceptance. You may still be struggling with your own acceptance of the STI while you are trying to have this conversation. However, it’s very important not to put it off. Only wait if you are feeling a lot of anger because it may lead to you be very defensive, which won’t be helpful to you or your partner.
If you contracted the STI before you were in the relationship, let your partner know this and take the responsibility. However, sometimes it’s hard to know who gave the STI to whom. Encourage your partner to get tested as soon as possible. Sometimes this will help determine who had the STI first, but it is not always possible to figure out. Do not start to blame each other. Unless one of you has cheated in the relationship, it may not matter who had the STI first.
This conversation is only going to be the first of many if you plan to keep your relationship intact. The psychological and emotional effects are sometimes worse than the physical, so give yourselves time to work through the emotions. It can be hard to accept, but some couples now realize that they can’t reinfect each other and go on to have a healthy sexual relationship. Acceptance is possible with strong communication and trust in place. It’s emotionally hard because it isn’t something people often talk to others about. Some couples may decide not to tell anyone else and only have each other for support.
What if you find out you have an incurable STI and you aren’t in a relationship? In counseling, students work through a lot of self-esteem issues and deal with their guilt. They have to learn to forgive themselves for not protecting themselves in the past. A lot of students state they feel gross and contagious. It’s hard to confidently put yourself out there to meet new people when you feel this way. I see people who feel so ashamed that they are afraid to start a new relationship. The conversation about their STI with someone new paralyzes them. We work on focusing on other things they have to offer in a relationship.
After a while some people who are tired of being alone may start to date, but break it off if anything remotely becomes sexual. They have often been alone for a long time and have a lot of anxiety about being with someone again. Some students decide to use internet dating sites for people who have STIs to find others who are already infected. This has helped some people find satisfying relationships with someone who would automatically know about their STI. Some students who meet someone they really like ask when they should have this conversation. I encourage them to wait until they know they want to be committed in the relationship and before they enter the sexual realm. I suggest they be upfront and honest and share the risks with their new boyfriend or girlfriend. Facing the possible rejection is excruciating, but a lot of students have reported positive results when having this conversation in a loving, positive relationship. It is a very courageous thing to tell someone about your sexual past, but it’s very important to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible.
Please be smart about your sex life. If you don’t have any STIs, be thankful and continue to practice safer sex. Get tested to avoid the devastating consequence of spreading an STI to someone else. If you have a STI that is incurable, life isn’t over. Many people with STIs are living happy, healthy lives and many are also in relationships. Click here for more Sexy & Savvy posts.
*While in the past, these illnesses have mostly been referred to as STDs or venereal disease (VD), in recent years the term sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has been preferred, as it has a broader range of meaning; a person may be infected, and may potentially infect others, without showing signs of disease.