HSV risk and polyamory

If you opened your relationship and got diagnosed with HSV, most likely through your partner, how do you move forward.

My partner and I have been together for nearly ten years. We have broken up and gotten back together multiple times. In the last year we have opened our relationship up. My partner has always known he is non monogamous and I finally understood how you can have feelings for more than one person at a time.

So he has been dating someone for the last few months and recently disclosed he really likes her and sees her as a potential partner. This was hard for me but I worked through it and we have been doing great. However, I am not dating or out there at the present time. This week I was diagnosed with HSV and my blood and culture results revealed that this is a new infection for me.

We have determined I got it from my partner who most likely got it from his new potential partner. It's extremely likely he has it too and just didn't know and passed it to me. We are still on shock at this point. His first reaction was I guess this is one way to close the relationship. I want him to end it with this other girl immediately because ultimately whether she knew she had HSV or not she is the reason I know have it.

I would like your thoughts and advice and am happy to read or listen to your podcast if you have an episode similar to this. But I'm learning that there isn't much out there for dealing with an STD once you've opened up your relationship.

He and I are fluid bonded and the rule is he uses condoms. But HSV spreads in other ways. He has always been very consciousness of STDs and gets frequently tested. He says he has a very upfront conversation about testing with anyone before they sleep together. My issue now is how can you just believe and trust a person you haven't know for very long? And how do we move forward?

While I’m not an STI expert by any means, from my understanding with both HSV 1 and HSV 2, it’s extremely common and many people are not actually tested for HSV even when they request to be tested for “everything” because the stigma of HSV 2 in particular is often worse than it actually is and because there are limits to blood tests and getting tested with no symptoms can yield a false positive. These types of tests are usually trying to find antibodies, rather than the actual virus.

I would think about the complexities of testing with COVID and trying to figure out if a positive test means you can infect others, etc. Sometimes these things aren’t super easy. Sometimes tests are wrong or antibodies don’t show up for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you test earlier than the symptoms show up.

Sometimes the symptoms are mild. Even if you have a lesion or a sore, it may not be serious enough to present the virus in a culture swab (because if you have a lesion then you’re trying to capture the virus and replicate it vs. looking for antibodies). So there are loads of reasons it may not show up either way. There is a lot more information about the complexities of HSV testing here.

A good deal of people have HSV 2 with mild to no symptoms and most people don’t know they have it. For most people, it’s not such a big deal and again, the stigma is a lot worse than the actual infection. It’s fully possible that this other person was tested and, even if they asked for an HSV test, they didn’t get a positive result. STIs come with a lot of cultural baggage and many of us internalise the idea that getting an STI means we’ve failed and language like “I’m clean” reinforce the idea that getting an STI makes one dirty, irresponsible and untrustworthy.

But none of this is actually true. Compare this to something like driving. We understand that driving comes with certain risks however we see the benefits culturally of driving and feel they outweigh the dangers. Because of that, we do not consider people who get into fender benders or even car wrecks to be automatically irresponsible, out of control or stupid.

We feel sympathy and understanding while at the same recognising that there is only so much we can control. We all take a measured approach to reduce the risk of getting into an accident by wearing a seatbelt, getting appropriate education in how to drive, looking at mirrors, and not driving while texting or extremely tired. Still, even when people make these mistakes, we don’t consider them to be permanently marked as irresponsible people.

So why is it that with sexual health we assume that getting an STI is something that only happens to dirty, irresponsible and untrustworthy people? While I’m not saying that this is exactly what you’re saying, it’s important to understand that a lot of the emotional reactions you may be having to this may come from a place of that baggage that’s been put on you and your partner by society.

Sometimes it happens, honestly, and it can happen to people regardless of how much they care or trust each other. Just like car wrecks can happen to new drivers or experienced ones. It can happen to people who religiously check their mirrors and people who drive while texting can go through life never getting in any wrecks.

I would try to take a deep breath, accept that you have a lot of emotions about this, ask some questions about what experiences your partner or the person they were with are having (e.g. have they had an outbreak, how bad was it, etc.). If you had a culture result, I’m assuming you may have a sore, but it’s possible that’s the only outbreak you will ever have. Take things one step at a time.

Also, ask yourself how breaking up with this person would change what has happened? While I understand the knee jerk reaction to wanting that and it’s very human, it doesn’t actually solve the problem or address any issue.

With all due respect, even if your HSV diagnosis is new, it’s fully possible your partner could have had it from someone else for a very long time and for whatever reason, it only recently passed to you. I feel like things are a little more complicated than maybe it seems with this.

Either way, I don’t think forcing your partner to break off a relationship is the right response to this because it’s retaliatory and it doesn’t actually solve the problem. If anything, there is more of a reason for your partner to stay with this person because, if your partner did get HSV from this person and passed it to you, at least you already know what you’re working with rather than him dating someone new who could have a more aggressive strain of HSV and not know it. Breaking up with her is not going to prevent this from happening again.

Take a step back, maybe see if you can have a few therapy sessions working through some of your feelings. Even if STIs are part of the risk of being a sexually active adult, with all of the cultural baggage that comes with STIs, it makes sense that you would have a lot of emotions to process through about it.

Understand that STIs don’t care how much you love or trust anybody. They don’t care about how honest you are or how much you know each other. They can be present even if you know each other very well. I used to feel very similar and in my previous relationship, I requested that my partner get to know someone before he had sex with them — but thankfully my partner challenged me on that.

Getting to know and trust someone doesn’t mean an STI can’t happen and having sex with someone you don’t know doesn’t mean an STI will happen. That’s just not how sexual health risk works in the same way that driving a car you’re familiar with isn’t guarantee you won’t even get in an accident.

Try to challenge yourself a little bit on this, be gentle with yourself, take some time to learn a bit more about HSV, take things one step at a time, maybe join some groups of people who have HSV and also speak with a therapist about working through some of these feelings. You might find that when you’re in a bit more of a stable place, you might feel a little less frustrated and angry about the situation and you can move forward.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Notes from Kathy

The fact that she isn't clarifying HSV1 or HSV2, to me, indicates she hasn't done much research and is demanding a break-up because she's angry. Love the driving analogy, it's the same one I use. I'd also point out that the risk of getting an STI in an open relationship with condom use is statistically lower than in a monogamous relationship. Yet ultimately the writer may decide she's just not willing to take the risk. Appreciate your clarity here.

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