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How to Tell a Potential Partner You Have an STD

A young woman with herpes shares ways to make the talk less stressful.

When you’re open about the fact that you have herpes (as I am), you get asked all the time if there is a foolproof, non-awkward way to tell a new sexual partner that you have an STD. Sorry to let you down, but there is no one-size-fits all script for disclosure (if you’ve found one, please e-mail it to me). Every relationship is its own special snowflake, and you have to find an approach to the STD conversation that works for you.

But in my experience bringing up the topic since I was diagnosed two years ago, I have picked up a few tricks. Here are 10 pointers I recommend anyone who has to broach this difficult topic keep in mind.

1. Practice

Yes, it is scary to have That Conversation, especially when you’ve been diagnosed recently. At the beginning, even thinking the words “I have an STD” can feel uncomfortable and embarrassing. So say them as often as possible! Talk to yourself in the mirror. Chat with your pets about sexual health—they won’t judge you. Every time you disclose your status, even when no one is actually on the listening end of that conversation, it gets easier. Before a big date, I like to practicing segues as I lather my hair up with shampoo in the shower (“And I have a blog where I write about gender issues and sexuality and what it’s like for me to live with genital herpes…”). You don’t need to plan out everything you want to say to your partner in advance, but knowing where you want to start and being able to say it smoothly will help you feel confident when the moment arrives.

2. Don’t Psych Yourself Out

It’s human nature to imagine all of the no-good, very-bad, awkward directions this conversation could go. When I was first diagnosed, the many nasty ways my date could reject me ran through my head like ticker tape. But convincing myself every disclosure would be a disaster was a self-fulfilling prophecy; I’ve only ever had a bad response when I entered that conversation from a place of doubt and insecurity. Instead of fixating on the risk of rejection, focus on how awesome you are and the positives you bring to the relationship. No, seriously! Think of the character and respect you are demonstrating by being honest about your sexual health. Look at you, doing the right thing. Who wouldn’t want to date you?

3. Make It a Conversation, Not a Monologue

A great way to freak out the person you’re dating is to say you need to talk about something serious and then launch into a big, emotional confession. Instead of taking the “I have something important to tell you” route, treat this as an opportunity to discuss how you want to approach your relationship…in a low-pressure way, of course. I’ve used the disclosure conversation to discuss what I want in the relationship more generally—am I looking for something exclusive, or would I prefer to keep things casual? This is also a good time to ask how recently they were last tested for STDs and discuss what forms of protection and birth control you want to use together. Saying, “I would rather we use condoms if we have sex because I have HPV and want to keep you safe,” is much more reassuring than, “I hate to tell you this, but I have HPV.”

Don’t be surprised if opening up about your STD invites him or her to do the same with whatever it is they struggle to tell new partners. Disclosing that you have an STD demonstrates you’re an honest, nonjudgmental soul, and that will often encourage your partner to lower some of his or her walls, too. Some of my best relationships were built on that first conversation when I let my guard down and my partner followed me to that place of emotional vulnerability. These are the moments of trust and vulnerability that become the foundations of the best relationships.