Any relationship can be difficult, but when one person is living with a life threatening disease with the social stigma that HIV still carries, many problems and issues are added to the mix. How do you tell your partner if you just found out you have the virus? What are the various strategies that are being researched regarding preventing HIV transmission? What are the options if considering having children? What are the issues other discordant couples are dealing with? Disclosing your HIV status to a partner is an extremely difficult task, whether it is someone you have just met or a long time partner.
You may experience many fears and emotions such as guilt, embarrassment and fear of rejection, but remember that this is something the large majority of people with HIV encounter and you are not alone. Before you consider what your partners reaction is going to be, you need to make sure that you are okay and prepared for this difficult task.
Reach out to other people with HIV or a counselor – There are many organizations, local support groups and on-line groups and forums where you can talk to others about how they have handled disclosing their status to a new or existing partner. Here are a few on-line groups and forums that may be helpful.
- The Body Forums: http://www.thebody.com/cgi-bin/bbs/ubbthreads.php
- POZ I AM: http://community.poziam.com
- HIV/AIDS Tribe: http://www.hivaidstribe.com
Learn all you can about HIV. Have printed material on hand to provide and suggest they do their own research. Be prepared to discuss HIV transmission. What are the real risks? What are your options for prevention? Know the probability of infection, how to prevent it and what is safe and what is not. Remember to learn about how an undetectable viral load decreases the risk of HIV transmission. This may be a conversation that could take place later or your partner may want to know what their risk is right away.
Decide on the right time and place. Make sure you pick a location that feels safe and comfortable for you both. Try to choose a time when you and your partner are in a good mood. Next think about what you are going to say. Plan out how the conversation may go. What might your partners reaction be? How will you handle each type of response? Your delivery can influence his/her acceptance of and reaction to what you say. If you’re calm and collected they might be as well. If you act as if it’s the end of the world, they might agree that it is. Allow a conversation to take place rather than doing all of the talking yourself. Encourage him/her to ask questions so you can know what they are thinking and feeling.
After you’ve said what you need, be aware that you will not be able to control his/her reaction, that’s why your delivery is so important. Try to guide how they hear what you’re telling them… HIV is no longer a death sentence… The risk of transmission can be controlled. Make sure you stress these points so they are walking away with facts. He/she might need time to himself at first. Be prepared that you may not get a yes or no answer immediately. They might want to break up right then and there, or they might handle the news well. Whatever their reaction, know that they have a right to their feelings and to the time needed to sort them out. It took you time to let the news of your HIV status sink in, it may for your partner as well.
If they do not react well don’t take their reaction completely personal. It is not just about you or you and he/she but about HIV. It is a lot to take in and they are going need time to adjust. Your partner may assume the worst and may blame you for possibly spreading the disease. It is important that you discuss these feelings with each other in an open and honest way, perhaps with a licensed counselor. Be prepared for possible rejection. Understand that not everyone is willing to deal with the risk of transmission, stigma and/or being in a relationship with someone who may get sick. This is their prerogative. It does not make them a bad person. They have the right to chose how they will live their life and what risks they are willing to take. Remember that there are lots people out there and many, many people will look past your HIV status.
Urge your partner to get tested. Assuring that they are healthy or seek treatment if they are already HIV positive is imperative. Approximately 20% of people with HIV are unaware of their status. If you are yet to be intimate, you should know if they are already HIV positive. If you continue the relationship and down the line they test positive, you will be setting yourself up for a lot of emotion and guilt when they may already have been HIV positive. If you have been intimate and they have become infected from you this is also extremely important to know. Either way, they will need to seek care and treatment immediately if they are already HIV positive.
If your partner has a history of violence it may be better to have someone there when you tell them. A friend, a counselor or a doctor can provide you the safety and support you may need to make disclosing your HIV status easier.
If you are considering having sex with someone and not disclosing your HIV status, you need to be aware that in doing so you may be breaking the law and could face severe penalties, including possible prison time. In many countries including the United States, the UK and 13 countries in West and Central Africa, not disclosing your HIV status to someone you have sex with is a criminal offense. You are legally required to disclose your status to sexual partners. The charges and penalties vary from country to country and state/providence, but non-disclosure ranges from various classes of misdemeanors to different degrees of felonies, including attempted murder, some carrying prison sentences. You may even be charged with manslaughter or murder if you pass the virus onto someone and they die.
To protect yourself, you may consider making a statement, with your partner present, in front of a third party that clearly acknowledges that they are fully aware of your status. It will always come down to one persons word against another so it is helpful to have a third party involved. Most likely you will never actually need to prove that you told someone of your status but just in case, it is good to cover all of the bases.
For U.S. state by state laws: