How to Be Supportive if Your Partner Has Genital Herpes
Herpes is a lot more widespread than most people may think. For starters, if you're among the billions of people who've had chickenpox, you've had herpes. If you've had Epstein-Barr virus—the underlying cause of mononucleosis—that also means you've had herpes.
Generally speaking, the main two strains are herpes simplex virus 1 and 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2). Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes and HSV-2 typically causes genital herpes, though each strain can occasionally cause the opposite type of outbreak.
One fact is certain: Herpes is quite common. More than 1 in 6 Americans ages 14 to 49 has genital herpes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If your partner has genital herpes, here are some ways to be a source of strength.
Offer support, not stigma
Even as commonplace as herpes is, there's still a strong stigma attached to the virus. As strong as that stigma is, it's often rooted in ignorance, as the CDC reports that up to 87 percent of people ages 14 to 49 who are infected with genital herpes don't know they have it. Offering your knowledge of just how common the virus is can help your partner realize they're not alone.
Remember, too, that if your partner is newly diagnosed, that doesn't necessarily mean they've been cheating on you. An individual can carry HSV-1 or HSV-2 for years in a dormant state without ever presenting symptoms, or they can have mild symptoms that go unnoticed or are mistaken for some other illness.
It's even possible that a longtime partner who suddenly presents with herpes might have gotten it from you. So reserve your judgment, don't jump to conclusions and offer your support.
Take some time to read up on herpes. You'll quickly learn that the billions of people around the world infected with herpes don't generally live lives of shame ensconced in a monastery cell. It's possible, and not even very difficult, to enjoy a healthy, happy sexual existence without infecting anyone else as long as you take the proper precautions.
Be sure you and your partner talk with your doctors about the medication valacyclovir, which sells under the brand name Valtrex. It helps suppress outbreaks and reduce viral shedding, which is how the virus spreads. Another antiviral medication used for genital herpes is acyclovir (Zovirax).
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine followed 1,484 couples where one partner had herpes and the other did not. The researchers found that one 500-milligram dose of valacyclovir per day resulted in a significantly lower infection rate with the continued use of condoms.
If your partner receives a herpes diagnosis, they will likely grapple with a confused mass of feelings, possibly including guilt, shame and fear.
Armed with some knowledge of herpes, you should take the time to sit down with your partner and talk about what will change in your lives and what won't change. You'll find the "won't change" column is much, much longer than the other one. Express that your feelings for them haven't changed and that you're there for them. You can also offer extra help by seeking and attending support groups together.
Make a plan for sex
Away from the heat of the moment, you'll want to go over sexual expectations. You need to dispassionately discuss the new requirements for your bedroom activities that you'll both need to adhere to moving forward, including the following:
- Recognize and acknowledge the symptoms of an impending outbreak, such as tingling, itching or pain.
- Always use a condom or dental dam for sex, even when there's no outbreak. An infected person still has a 4 to 10 percent chance of transmitting the virus without an outbreak.
- Never have sex when there's an active outbreak, because the virus can be transmitted through nearby areas that aren't covered by a condom.
- The infected partner should take a doctor-recommended antiviral medication every day.
A challenge, not a barrier
Helping your partner live with genital herpes may be a challenge, but it's not an insurmountable one. After all, upward of 4 billion people around the world live with some form of the virus every day. Just focus on being empathetic, understanding and careful. You and your partner can share a life without sharing the virus with just a few extra precautions.