Clarity, honesty, and assertiveness without apology are the keys to discussing herpes with a new sexual partner-to-be. There is a lot of advice around about herpes discussions. Generally, it is agreed that herpes should be put into perspective, not made more or less of than it is. Remember that your own overall feeling about this infection will come through strongly when you tell your lover-to-be.
Avoid preparing for the discussion by painting a picture of impending doom. Stay away from a tone or words that suggest "Sit down - I have something horrible to tell you" or "Prepare yourself." Your role is simply to inform. Tell your partner everything you know about herpes - what it is, how you know you have it, how you avoid transmitting it, how you have handled telling people before, etc. You may wish to practice role-playing first with a friend or counsellor. It's also a good idea to talk to your doctor to make sure you're well informed on what herpes is, how it is spread, and your options for preventing transmission of herpes.
Tell your partner early, but not too early. Once you have established mutual trust and realize you want to have a sexual relationship with this person, then talk about herpes before you are physically involved. The subject of herpes has a powerful way of curbing spontaneity or spoiling the moment. Thought and sexual arousal are not well-suited partners. Plan the moment. Whether you choose a long walk or a dinner is not important, but the absence of sexual contact is. The discussion should take place where sexual contact is unlikely to follow the discussion.
To truly provide informed consent to your partner, you will want to give him or her some time to think about it. Your partner may want extra time to read about herpes or talk to his or her own health care provider. You must be comfortable with the knowledge you possess, since you must serve as an initial source of information. Avoid using your knowledge to one-up or one-down the person you are talking with. Instead, educate your partner on an equal basis - make it a shared experience. Do your best to stay in control of the situation. You have some medical facts to discuss and some plans for avoiding transmission. You will want to tell your partner that this is something he or she is being entrusted with because you feel that the relationship is worthy of it and you sense that sexual involvement may soon develop.
Expect some expression of fear from your partner. Acceptance without fear could mean that your partner knows about herpes already or else that he or she is not dealing with the subject. Expressed fears can be dealt with and placed into perspective. Remember that herpes is not you, any more than the acne on your back is you or the bump on your nose is you. You need not apologize for having herpes - not to yourself or to your partner - and you certainly do not need to apologize for talking about it.
Stephen Sacks, MD, FRCPC, with revisions by the MediResource clinical team