The most pressing question many of my clients with genital herpes have, even more than worry about how to tell someone they're dating that they have herpes, is when to tell someone they’re dating that they have herpes.
Most of the clients who work with me describe themselves as preferring sex within the context of a relationship. I do have some clients who enjoy casual sex and who have success disclosing to those partners, but today I’m going to focus on those of you who are seeking something more serious.
First, it’s important to me to help you build a strong sense of self-acceptance and self-esteem so that you can feel happier with yourself and more secure in relationships—and not just secure, but be able to create truly healthy, intimate relationships in which you can be yourself, feel loved, and feel close to your partner. I’m not just interested in helping you to avoid rejection. I want you to have a good life and sometimes rejection, even though it hurts, saves us from misery with the wrong person. Many of my clients say that herpes really helped them to start choosing better quality partners and to weed out partners who weren’t a great fit. I want to help you get to a place where you highly value your own opinions and feelings and make choices throughout a relationship because they’re right for you (not because you're trying to please someone else or guess what they want), including choosing the timing of when to tell someone you're dating.
Thinking Through Timing
Most people agree that disclosure should happen before sexual behavior that puts your partner at risk. Your partner should have an opportunity to make an informed choice, but more importantly, your partner will want to be able to trust you and may question your trustworthiness if you wait until after sex. (That said, I’ve certainly had clients who have chickened out of the talk or sex happened after a night of drinking and they didn’t disclose. If you are there, you are not alone. It also doesn’t mean that there’s no hope for saving your relationship. Believe it or not, I’ve seen disclosures after sex work out. But hopefully this series of articles will help you to avoid being in that position.)
Can You Disclose Too Soon?
While some people delay sharing their status, others are so anxious about disclosing that they want to find out right away whether their new romantic interest is comfortable with herpes. I think disclosing very early is okay if it feels comfortable and natural to you. Sometimes conversation works that way. My concern is that many people do this to avoid anxiety. Rather than trying to be vulnerable and move closer to their new partner, they want to get the rejection over with before they are too invested. In this case, rushing to tell your partner might have more to do with fear of intimacy and vulnerability.
If this is you, take a deep breath. I want to help you get more in tune with yourself so that you’re making choices that feel right rather than just reacting to fear or other challenging emotions.
Tune Into Your Needs
Deciding the right time is unique to each person and each relationship. I wish I could say there is a formula but there's not. That’s why being in tune with yourself, what you need, and how you feel about the person sitting across from you is so important.
Many of my clients do worry about waiting too long and that their new love interest will resent them as a result. They worry that they are being deceptive or that they might be wasting someone’s time by not disclosing early enough.
Let me just say, if someone is spending time with you and enjoying you and making effort to get to know you, you are not wasting their time unless you are misleading them (i.e. you just want someone to pay for your dinner tonight).
You have the right to get to know someone well enough before choosing to disclose personal information. What if you find out you don't even like this person after a few dates? Part of dating is exploring whether a person is worth sharing deeper parts of yourself.
What About All The Other Things You Have To Give?
Herpes doesn’t negate all the other wonderful things about you that you bring to a potential relationship. What if you have just the right combination of characteristics that your partner needs or is looking for? We might think that the person we’re dating could just go out and date anyone (i.e. someone without herpes), but if it was that easy to find the right match, they would’ve found it already. If your partner is looking for a relationship, then they also want to find someone they have chemistry with, who they enjoy spending time with, and who they feel safe with. What if that person is you? You are unique and have a lot to give.
Besides, none of us get to date and see everything laid out before us right away. There are things you and your partner will discover about each other long after you have been together that you might not like. Maybe you’ll find out about significant money problems, an over-involved parent, an annoying or gross habit, anger issues, or a mismatch in values or dreams. We all take this risk when we are dating. There will be multiple points in every relationship in which information is learned and partners evaluate and decide whether to stay or leave. Getting to know and care about someone helps us make decisions about the information we learn. If we knew everything about our partners from the beginning, most of us would probably be afraid to get involved with anyone, and we’d miss out on all the great things that come with loving someone.
So, please don’t think you are wasting someone’s time. And if someone does get mad at you for waiting to share something personal (when you haven’t put them at risk), please be grateful for the opportunity to learn something about how they handle your feelings and think about whether this person could actually be a good partner to you.
How Will You Know When You're Ready to Tell?
Building self-esteem and choosing a great partner means that part of your work is to prioritize what you think of the person you are dating over what you imagine that person is thinking of you. When you like someone, if you find yourself spending a lot of time worrying about what that person thinks of you and trying to adjust your every move to please them, it’s time to refocus. This is your life. This is your effort and time. Is this person impressing you, not just with their charming smile and magical personality, but in the way that they treat you? Remember what you have to offer. That is valuable. What are they bringing?
Shift dating from trying to win the attention of your new interest to evaluating whether your new interest is worthy of your time and attention. Just because you have herpes doesn’t mean you have to just take what you can get.
You can help yourself recenter in a few ways. Spend some time with friends who make you feel most like yourself. Take some time out to do things you love, even if it means not seeing the person you’re dating that week. Do a little journaling about your feelings and what you think of the person you’re dating. What doubts do you have about them? What do you enjoy? Are you happy with the effort they're putting in?
You can disclose at any point along the way (before sex) that you decide. Most of my clients disclose within the first few months, some on the earlier side (within a few dates), some on the later. Some people are very private and want to know if they want the relationship to become serious before they disclose. Some just want to know enough that they believe the person will respond kindly, regardless of whether they continue dating. Others disclose when they know they are ready to have sex.
Even after thinking everything through and deciding it’s time to tell, you probably will feel nervous and maybe a little insecure. That is okay and totally normal. If you are making a choice and not just reacting, you are taking a step toward intimacy by being vulnerable, and that is a mature and beautiful thing. That is the DNA of a real, healthy relationship. I hope your new romantic interest meets you there, but if not, I hope you will give someone else a chance.
I’ll be continuing this series over the next few weeks, including my usual posts about succeeding in relationships, self-esteem, and mental health. If you find these posts helpful, you can sign up for my newsletter here.
Other Posts In This Series
I am a licensed mental health counselor in New York City with a psychotherapy office in Murray Hill, Manhattan. Find out more about me here.
Please remember that we are continuously learning new things about herpes. I will try to keep this list updated but remember that research may come out today that changes what we currently know about herpes. Information on this website is not intended to replace professional medical or psychotherapeutic advice.