In life, there’s no shortage of tough yet necessary conversations—from breaking up with someone to laying off an employee to telling your mom you’re not going to make it home for Christmas. One of the worst? Informing a new partner you have a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
We’re not going to sugarcoat it: It’s going to be awkward. But it’s also incredibly important, says Rachel DeAlto, a relationship and communications expert. Allowing sexual desire to overtake our human decency is really not OK, she says.
Fortunately, when done right, having this conversation can open the door to an even more honest and trusting relationship in the long run. And while it may never be an easy talk to have, this advice can help.
6 Tips for the Talk
1. Yes, you have to tell.
While you don’t need to share your STD status with everyone you go on a date with, you do need to tell anyone you’re going to be getting physical with, says Christan Marashio, writer, dating expert, and creator of And That's Why You're Single.
And no, you can’t put it off until after getting busy. While condoms can reduce the risk of passing on an STD, they don’t eliminate the risk completely.
So if there’s a chance of having sex or even skin-to-skin contact with someone, they deserve to know about an STD. Not only are you potentially putting their health at risk, but you’re also toying with the foundation of honesty and trust, which is crucial to establish properly off the bat for any healthy relationship, DeAlto adds.
(Note: Some sources now refer to STDs as STIs—the “I” stands for infection. The terms are basically interchangeable, though STI is more encompassing and allows for the fact that some infections are curable and asymptomatic.)
2. Know your facts.
Make sure you learn as much as you can about the STD you’re dealing with before initiating a conversation. The Centers for Disease Control and Planned Parenthood are good resources, as is talking your doctor. Human papillomavirus (HPV), for example, is so common that the CDC predicts most sexually active men and women will get at least one strain of it at some point in their lives. And 90 percent of infections resolve themselves within two years, which is also helpful to know. (HPV can still have serious consequences like cervical cancer, so we’re not saying it’s a joking matter.)
When you bring it up, start with your diagnosis, lay out what has happened since, and then include as many facts as possible. Remember that logic and facts win in most situations, Marashio says. Also keep in mind that most people don’t know much about STDs unless they have one, so it’s going to be your job to give them a crash course on it.
Finally, explain their chances of contracting it early in the conversation, DeAlto advises. “At the end of the day, people are selfish and want to know their risk. Then they’ll make an assessment in their head of risk versus reward.”
3. Pick the right place...
Do it in private, ideally face-to-face—not over dinner in a restaurant or at Starbucks, Marashio says. “Telling someone in public may cause the other person to feel a little manipulated, like they can’t have a genuine reaction,” she explains. Your best bet is on a park bench or at their apartment—somewhere they feel comfortable and free from judgment.
4. ...and time.
Tell them before getting intimate—don't wait until after clothes come off. After all, the whole point is to give the other person an option you may not have had: to decide if the risk is worth it before getting infected.
“Your brain is not working the same when you’re half undressed and ready to go,” DeAlto explains, “and people certainly don’t make the smartest decisions once sex is already on the brain. Research confirms: Once we're sexually aroused, we're more likely to take risks, including things like forgoing birth control or protection.
Also, make sure you’re both sober. “If they’re too drunk to understand what you’re saying, not only will they not be in the state of mind to make a healthy decision, but there’s a chance they may not remember the talk in the morning,” DeAlto says. Not a risk you want to take.
This is definitely one of those convos best had in person, DeAlto says. But the most important point is that you have it, so if you're really freaking out about telling them IRL and keep chickening out, that little screen may come in handy to help you feel safer, she concedes.
A good example of a time to say it virtually: after a date that was headed in the direction of sex but veered off course. “That can be a natural segue once you get home: ‘I know I cut you off there, and it’s not that I wanted to. I just need to tell you something first.’”
The bottom line: Do it once and do it right. You want the peace of mind of knowing you had the conversation without being impaired by alcohol, weed, or any sexual desires.
5. Be considerate and calm.
Start with something like, “Hey, there’s something I want to talk to you about before we go any further.” Unfortunately, no matter how you say it, this sentence is likely going to trigger an automatic reaction in the other person’s head, DeAlto says. But the idea here is to keep it as light as possible despite the heavy topic.
Empathy is also key. “This is a personal conversation and a reflection upon you, but it really needs to be about the other person—about making them feel comfortable and informed,” she says.
Think: How would you want to feel? What information would you want to know? Understand this person may freak out, so prepare yourself, DeAlto suggests. Try to minimize that internal alarm as much as possible by not being too blunt or insensitive.
While STDs are not dismissible, don’t go into the conversation thinking it’s doomsday, DeAlto adds. If you’re convinced this person is going to reject you immediately, they may catch on to your fear and start to worry even more. Remember, many STDs are treatable, and in general, can be less of a big deal than many people are ingrained to think. So try to focus on the reassuring aspects of your situation—without downplaying it—and strategies that the two of you can use to minimize the risks.
6. Give them space.
Allow the other person time to process all this new info. “This is not a decision they should be making rashly,” DeAlto says. Offer to spend the rest of the night just chilling or head home for the night, so they don’t feel pressured to make this massive decision on the fly.
End with: “I know this is a lot of information. We don’t have to make any decisions tonight. I’m cool with whatever you decide, and I can answer any questions you have, but I wanted to do this so you have the decision that I didn’t have.”
Based on the experts’ advice, here’s a way of introducing the topic that you can make your own:
“I really like you, and I’m really attracted to you, but before things go any further, I just want to let you know I found out that I have herpes/HPV/gonorrhea/another STD in X year. I haven’t had an outbreak in X years/months. I don’t have an outbreak now. I take this medication or practice this preventive care. As long as we use a condom, your chances of becoming infected are X. I’ve never infected a partner since my diagnosis [if applicable], but I wanted to do this before you felt like your judgment might be compromised. I don’t want you to feel misled.”
You can also use this as a platform to find out their status, DeAlto says: “Along those lines, given this experience, I’m wondering when the last time you were tested was.” Ask in a way that doesn’t feel accusatory, but everyone who is having sex on a regular basis should be getting tested, so it’s totally a valid question.
Remember you're doing the right thing, even though it's tough. “You’re giving the other person an opportunity that maybe you weren’t given before you were infected,” DeAlto says. If you lay it all out in a way that shows you’re knowledgeable about the subject, you're considerate, and you care about them, chances are they'll appreciate your honesty, no matter what they decide to do from there.
And if they bail after hearing the news? Remember it’s not the end of the world, and it doesn't mean you'll be single forever. The upside is that you know why they decided to move on, and it's their decision. There are plenty of people out there who'll recognize how awesome you are, regardless of your STD status.