Talk to each other

Good communication is the key to success in any relationship.

Talking to your partner is a very important part of addressing any stresses and issues that you may experience.

It’s important that you feel able to talk about how HIV is affecting you both, and the tensions or changes it causes in the relationship.

Obviously, this can only happen if your partner knows that you have HIV. The following section considers some of the issues that this may involve.

Forming a sexual relationship

Deciding at what point to tell somebody, when you are forming a new sexual relationship, that you have HIV can be tricky. One approach is to tell any potential partners, whereas other people only raise the subject when it’s clear there’s a real prospect of a relationship developing. Both approaches have their pros and cons.

Telling people immediately means that you’ve been upfront about having HIV from the beginning, and that may make things easier should a relationship form. You may feel that, if a potential partner is unwilling to talk about things, it’s a sign that the relationship wouldn’t work anyway.

But on the other hand, the more people you tell, the greater the risk that you’ll receive a negative reaction one day, and it will mean that more people know that you have HIV. The person you disclose to may tell other people. Whether you are comfortable with this will depend on how you feel about people knowing you have HIV.

Only telling someone that you have HIV once a relationship has started to form can also have advantages. You’ll have a good idea if the relationship has longer-term prospects. It’s also likely that you’ll have some insights into your partner’s character, meaning that you may be able to better judge how he or she may react.

However, it may be difficult to explain why you didn’t tell your partner earlier in the relationship, especially if you’ve taken any kind of sexual risk. It’s also important to know that, in England and Wales, if you don’t tell your partner, and you have unprotected sex with him or her and they become infected with HIV, you could be prosecuted. (The legal situation is different in other countries, you can find out more in our HIV & criminal law resource, at www.aidsmap.com/law)

You will be able to find an approach that works for you – there’s no right or wrong way to approach it. And remember, if the relationship doesn’t work out, that this could be for any number of reasons and may be completely unconnected with HIV.

Diagnosed with HIV when already in a relationship

Finding out you have HIV when you are already in a relationship is likely to involve a different set of issues.

Coming to terms with your own diagnosis can take time. In additions to concerns you may have about your own health and future, you may be worried that you could have passed on HIV to your partner, and what your diagnosis will mean for your relationship.

If you have a monogamous relationship (which means that you and your partner had agreed to be faithful to each other, or ’exclusive’) and were infected with HIV by sexual activity outside of the relationship, an additional concern may be the need to talk to your partner about this.

It can be a very difficult situation for both you and your partner to deal with and it is likely to raise a lot of strong emotions in both of you.

So it makes good sense to think about how and when you tell your partner and anticipate his or her best or worst reaction. Counsellors and health advisers at your HIV clinic will be able to talk this over with you.

It’s likely to take some time for you and your partner to work through the issues that arise from your HIV diagnosis.

Many people have found that their partner is very supportive, understanding and loving. But this isn’t always the case, and other reactions can include shock, anger, and blame. Some relationships are strong enough to survive this, but some others are not.

For some people, it is particularly difficult to tell their partner that they have HIV. You may rely on your partner for money or, if you live together, you may have concerns about your partner wanting you to leave your home, or you may be fearful of violence.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support with these issues. Your HIV clinic will be able to help, and there might also be a local HIV organisation who can offer you advice and help. If you’re not sure what is available in your area, you could contact the Terrence Higgins Trust helpline, THT Direct, on 0808 802 1221 for information and support.

If you have children, you may be concerned about the possibility that they have HIV. Or you may be worried that your relationship with your children will be damaged. And you’ll face another set of decisions about what, when and how to tell them. A good source of support and information is Body and Soul, which specialises in providing services to families, teenagers and children affected by HIV.

Finally, difficult as it may be to tell your partner, there are often many reasons why this makes good sense. It will help build feelings of trust and shared responsibility. Opening up the discussion about looking after each others’ health – not just avoiding HIV transmission but protecting both partners from other sexually transmitted infections – can very constructive. And if there is any risk that your partner may have become HIV positive, it is important that they are tested and get the treatment and care they need.

There are effective ways to ensure HIV isn’t passed on to a negative partner (see Sex). In England and Wales, if you take measures to avoid HIV transmission, such as using condoms each time you have sex, you are protected by the law. But it’s important to know that if you don’t tell your partner, and you have unprotected sex with him or her and they become infected with HIV, you could be prosecuted.

Moving forward together

Talk honestly to your partner about what your HIV means to both you and to him or her.

This will help you acknowledge and work through the emotional and practical issues that it will inevitably involve for both of you.

Your partner may need some time to absorb what you have told them. Depending on whether they have had any previous experience of people living with HIV, they may also want need to have some of the facts around HIV explained to them. It can be helpful if you keep yourself informed on the basics about HIV, as you may have to give them some accurate information. Many people’s knowledge of HIV can be very out of date, and they may not realise how effective HIV treatment is nowadays, for example.

It can be painful and there may be times when one or both of you will find your emotions difficult to deal with. But it’s likely to be worth it and will help you move forward together in a way that’s best for both of you.

Some of the issues you may want to discuss are:

  • Your health. Everyone with HIV has concerns about their health from time to time. Your partner is likely to share these. You’ll be better able to support each other if you are aware of what the other is thinking and feeling. It’s good to know that with the right treatment and care the life expectancy of most people with HIV in the UK is now the same as for an HIV-negative person. The chances are that you can look forward to a long and healthy life together.
  • The balance of your relationship. If one partner in a relationship has a health condition, this can sometimes mean that, from time to time, it doesn’t feel like a relationship between equals, but that each partner adopts a distinct role – for example, patient and caregiver. Given the success of current HIV treatment, it is unlikely that you will suffer serious illness, but an illness – for either partner – can change the balance of a relationship.
  • Your security. Long-term health conditions doesn’t just have health implications, they can sometimes affect day-to-day concerns such as work, finances and housing. The impact of a long-term condition on these issues can change over time (for example, should one of you become ill). It makes good sense to talk to your partner about how you can both respond. More positively, it’s good to know that very many HIV-positive people are in long term, secure employment, own their home with their partner and enjoy financial security
  • Your futures. Discuss how HIV affects both of your hopes and priorities for the future. The presence of HIV in the relationship need not necessarily mean that these change, or you may find that the relationship evolves in a way that it beneficial for both of you.
  • Your family. If you have children, you may be concerned about how HIV will affect your ability to care for them. If you are a woman with HIV and there is a chance that you were HIV positive during any of your pregnancies or when breastfeeding, it’s important that your children are tested for HIV if that hasn’t already happened. But with the right treatment and care, it is still possible for you to have a healthy, HIV-negative baby, and for you to live a long and healthy life.
  • Your needs. The presence of HIV in a relationship will mean that you both have practical and emotional needs. It’s important that you both recognise the needs of your partner and work out ways of supporting one another.
  • Intimacy. Health conditions are often accompanied by fear, confusion, and role changes. These can have an impact on your expressions and feelings of intimacy towards one another.
  • Sex. One way or another HIV is likely to have an impact on your sex life together, and some of the issues involved are explored in more detail in the next section, and in the section on Sex.

You can work through these issues together is you communicate your thoughts and feelings to one another. You’ll inevitably both experience a whole range of emotions, and sharing these can help you come closer together and find the best way to move forward together.

Contact NAM to find out more about the scientific research and information used to produce this section.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.