My Inbox received a ton of e-mails from my recent Match.com column, published on MSN’s Dating & Personals page. It’s topic, "Being Single with Herpes," is a sensitive one. Some of the e-mails were loving, while others were angry.
Here’s the question that was posted ON MSN, along with my response. Following it are some of the assorted emails I received, along with my comments.
Dear Dr. Gilda,
I’m a 42-year-old single father. My ex-wife denied ever having herpes, but gave it to me and finally admitted the truth. The fact that she lied to me about it compounded the problem.
Now divorced, as I encounter new relationships, I really struggle with this burden. I am able to meet and date women without difficulty—I’m fairly outgoing. But as an honest person, I’ve always felt that it is unfair to see someone to the point that they really care about me before telling them about my “curse.” So I generally date briefly, until it seems there is potential to have a serious relationship—and then tell them. Although I know I’m doing the right thing, it hasn’t worked out very well. I’ve lost three relationships over the past two years because of this and admit that it’s very frustrating. That being said, I hold my head high, knowing that one day the right person will be willing to accept this negative for all the positives I have.
What would be your advice for determining the right time to tell the person you begin to love, knowing that this issue is likely one of the greatest barriers to a relationship?
– Mr. Honesty
Dear Mr. Honesty,
Although it may feel this way when you’re dating, herpes is hardly “one of the greatest barriers to a relationship.” Statistically, I’ve read that 25% of women and 20% of men have genital herpes. Ninety percent of them don’t know it. So while you know about your condition and are willing to discuss it with potential lovers, it’s possible that many of these women have herpes, too, and either don’t know it, or are not forthcoming about it. Even then, if they’re careful, they won’t necessarily always pass it on to their partner. And put it in perspective: It is not a death sentence!
Our culture advertises perfection. And, of course, you want to present your most perfect self to all your romantic interests. But whom do you know who is perfect? Every person has some unique challenge to overcome. And how an individual navigates this challenge determines his or her personal success in life.
You are to be commended for wanting to honestly share your situation with potential intimates. But there is no perfect time to reveal a potentially embarrassing truth. Of course, upon meeting someone, you don’t want to say: “Hello. My name is Mr. Honesty, and I have herpes.” You should not share personal information about anything until you feel emotionally safe with a person. See if a relationship will unfold first, and tackle each situation as it arises. I know people with terrible, disabling conditions who are happily married to very special partners. You can be, too. If the past few women were not for you, it may be because they were quite simply not for you, and nothing else. Get out of the mindset that the relationships didn’t go forward because of herpes.
This is what I recommend you do now:
1. Search the Internet for herpes support groups. There are hotlines, support groups (online and off), and social events. You will find you are not alone.
2. Volunteer time at a hospital in a ward that cares for terminally ill patients. You will actually be grateful that your own issue is so minor.
3. Observe survivors and “thrivers,” like Montel Williams who has MS and Lance Armstrong who beat testicular cancer. Read their stories, and mirror their coping tactics.
As my Gilda-Gram advises, “When you perceive yourself as ‘damaged,’ that’s the impression you will project.” So boost your self-image, embolden your self-confidence, and let your dates know that you’re a good guy and a hot catch! If you believe it, you will be it!
What follows are the e-mails some of my readers sent me, and my comments to them. People’s names and e-mail addresses were deliberately omitted for privacy purposes. I hope this dialogue inches us closer to constructive interchange as we navigate our very complex lives and the people we love.
Dear Dr. Gilda,
This is a reply to the man known as Mr. Honesty that has genital herpes. I too am a male that has genital herpes and was devastated when I first learned I had herpes over 17 years ago. I was rather promiscuous in my early years and to this day do not know who gave me the disease. I would like to let him know that I too wondered when to tell a potential partner I had the disease. I thought that if I divulged that information ahead of time no women would ever want me. I was not as forthcoming as he and I had sexual relations with some women before telling them, which was wrong. The first one I told after we had sex reacted in a manner I expected. She stopped seeing me instantly and understandably so. However, after some period of time I approached her again and we ended up getting married. That marriage ended in divorce some time later but not due to herpes. I then waited to tell me current wife about the disease until after we had had sex. She took it very well and we continued our relationship and have been married for over 10 years. Although occasional outbreaks prohibit us from having sex now and then all other times we enjoy a healthy sex life and she has not exhibited any symptoms. I do not condone my behavior in waiting to tell your partner about your herpes until after you have already had sex and in hindsight wish I had been more forthright like yourself. You are doing the right thing. My point is that two women married me knowing I had herpes. Even though it may seem like gloom and doom now there is hope. Hold your head high. The right woman will come along that will accept you and love you for who you are and the fact that you have herpes will not matter.
Been In Your Shoes
Thank you for sharing your story. I hope it helps others going through this ordeal.
Dear Dr. Gilda,
I would like to contact Mr. Honesty since reading his story brought tears to my eyes. I am in a similar situation; I feel my ex-husband gave me herpes. I cannot prove it, but, this has been a very hurtful experience. Any information you can forward to me would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Dear Dr. Gilda,
Today on MSN.com you gave advice to the 42-year-old single father who's ex-wife gave him an STD. I had the same thing happen to me with my ex-husband. Is there any way you could give me his contact info so I could contact him so that maybe we could converse? It was helpful to me to hear someone is going through the same issue that I have been facing.
Dear Dr. Gilda,
I read your article on MSN Suddenly Single about the 42-year-old single father whose ex-wife gave him Herpes. I understand how the man feels and the things that he is going through with telling people he cares about that he has this virus and then facing rejection. I too have the same problem. I understand that physically I will not die from HSV2, but it does cause emotional issues not only for me, but also when it comes to relationships. I understand that there are ways to help prevent the spread of the virus to help protect your partner, but it has been my experience that many people will reject you because they do not want to have to deal with the possibility of getting it or the "ick" factor. To many, those of us with HSV are "damaged goods." I am a divorced 38-year- old woman that got Herpes type 2 from my ex-husband. I face many of the same issues that Mr. Honesty does. If Mr. Honesty needs someone to chat with, please do give him my e-mail address. I would be more than happy to offer support and to let him know that there are many people dealing with the same situations as he.
Dear Curious, Confused, and Cuddly Lady,
I’m sorry that e-mail addresses are confidential, and it would be impossible for me to share these confidences. I have often wanted to match up different e-mailers because I saw such similarities in them, but I’m afraid it’s impossible.
Dear Dr. Gilda,
I read the advice you gave to the "Mr. Honesty" on the topic of herpes. Having been in that position I agree with some of what you said but think you missed the boat on parts of it. The analogies you made to MS and cancer were really not germane as they are not contagious and the fact those individuals are thriving doesn't mean anything to someone with a communicable STD. He wants to be able to handle what he has, not just see that someone is worse off than he is. That doesn't help him deal with his problem. What I did, and what I would have advised him to do, would be to research the condition. Once I learned all there was to know about it, my feelings of anger and frustration and thoughts of never having a family (currently married for 20 yrs. with 2 kids) subsided considerably. Loaded with the knowledge would enable him to not only reveal his condition, but to discuss it in a manner that might put his potential partner at ease with the idea. Support groups are a good idea both emotionally and socially.
Been There Myself
Dear Been There,
Thank you for your comments. I once dated a man who said he regretted not pursuing a terrific, beautiful woman because she had a limp. Now that he was older and wiser, he recognized how superficial of him it was. We all endure limps of one kind or another. It is up to our prospective partners to decide what is within their limits of acceptance and what it not. Through that process, they grow—and so do we. Someone will not like my red hair, but someone else will love it. It’s the same with any disease, whether communicable or otherwise. In my view, it’s the limps we have, and the lumps we take, that define us . . .
Dear Dr. Gilda:
I wanted to respond to your advice to the 42 year-old man with herpes. I contracted herpes when I was 18 the second time I had sex with the guy to whom I lost my virginity. He did not tell me that he had herpes and I always felt really strongly that I needed to share my status with potential partners BEFORE we were intimate. Over the years, I developed a "Good News/Bad News" strategy that involved me giving the good news ("I am HIV-negative") first, followed by the bad news ("I have herpes"). I generally told people I was dating before we had sex for the first time. Frankly, it really made me consider who I was dating and having sex with more closely: because telling someone was fairly traumatic and I really needed to feel safe and comfortable, I probably had sex with a lot less guys than I would have if I didn't have herpes.
Over the past 20 years I have never given herpes to anyone, including guys with whom I was having sex without condoms in longer-term relationships. I have not had an outbreak since 1992 or 1993, but I realize I may still be able to infect someone. However, I recently came across a pamphlet at Planned Parenthood that stated that after approximately 5 years, the genital herpes virus tends to go dormant. If the gentleman is still experiencing outbreaks he may also wish to take daily medication that will help decrease outbreaks, which will then reduce the risk of transmission. My outbreaks were so infrequent that I did not take medication after the first outbreak, but I always told potential partners that I could tell when an outbreak was coming and that I would never have sex with someone if I even suspected that I might be having an outbreak (once an ingrown hair caused a false alarm). Sharing this type of information (along with being able to state that he is HIV-negative, assuming he is) with potential partners may help him assuage both his own anxiety and his partners' during what is always a difficult discussion.
Your positive attitude is exactly what I was getting at by contrasting “survivors” and “thrivers” with those who foster doom and gloom. Good for you for navigating your personal issues in such an upbeat way! I'm sure your interpersonal relationships shine.
I read your advice column often and it is very informative. Most of the time I agree with you, but I would like to comment on your advice to the 42-year-old single father whose ex-wife had given him herpes and would not admit she had it at first.
I don't have herpes, but I can only imagine what a problem it can be. From my own point of view, I believe it would be a big barrier in a relationship. I have managed to get through 50+ years of my life without it, and I would do anything I could to prevent getting it. Now if you fall in love with someone, and they don't know they have it and later find out they do, I think it would be easier to stand by them and the two of you deal with it together. But dating someone and finding out at the beginning of a potentially serious relationship would be a whole other thing. I think I can honestly say that I would not continue the relationship. Herpes is a lifelong, no-cure condition. No, it isn't life threatening, but it can sure cause discomfort, pain, and a lot of anxious moments from what I have read and heard.
I agree with your strategies to build his self-esteem. He needs to feel good about himself and not be down because of something that wasn't his fault. The problem with the examples you gave him as to disabilities, cancer, MS, etc. is that these conditions are not contagious. You can live with someone that has any of these conditions and not be anxious that you will contract the same condition.
When I was reading your advice, it just seemed to me that you were downplaying the impact of herpes on his life. By saying we all want perfection and none of us has it makes it seem as if herpes is like a big nose or sticky-out ears. I just think he is going to have to find that special person that is willing to deal with this challenge. I think of myself as a compassionate, caring person, but I wouldn't want to do it. I should probably mention that I have been through breast cancer and reconstructive surgery so I would probably go through the same "stigma" if I told potentially serious males of my physical imperfection, but there again, my condition isn't contagious. I would just have to find a mate that wouldn't mind that I am not physically perfect. I feel good about myself, but I know that there are a lot of people out there that couldn't deal with such things, so I just think he needs to be aware that the herpes will be a big factor in his finding a mate.
Girl with Other Imperfections
One of my online grad students was ashamed of the way he looked. He continued to harp on his disfigurement without even stating what it was. His feelings of negativity ran his life with terrible insecurity and feelings of unworthiness. Through this sensitive course I was running, he built the courage to submit a photo of himself to me and to the rest of the class. (I felt great that we had made such a terrific breakthrough!!) When I saw the photo, I squinted my eyes in disbelief. He commented about having a “big head,” which was not disfiguring at all. BUT IT WAS, TO HIM. Actually, he was quite a good-looking guy.
What you think about, you bring about. If you think you’re scarred for life, then you are. I’m happy you’re aware that you must be more discriminating in selecting future partners. Everyone should be!!! It’s just that you got a jump-start on the others out there.
Dear Dr. Gilda,
This morning I read a story on MSN about a man who has herpes. I feel for him because I have it now for 20 years. I have been in that man's situation several times and never had one woman reject me when I told them. In fact, I had two women cry because I was so thoughtful in telling before we had sex. But it all comes down to the type of person that woman is to be able to understand. I take Valtrex everyday and that helps people you’re dating have some assurance the likelihood for contracting the disease is very slim.
Anyway, here is a website that might help that reader find someone with the same issue: http://www.positivesingles.com/
Overcoming the Odds
Thank you for sharing that site with my readers. I’ll pass it along.
Dear Dr. Gilda,
First, I don't need a response to my comment. Second, I read your comment to a guy whose ex-wife game him an STD, herpes to be exact. You said it wasn't a death sentence. But unless you've been down that road, it sure feels that way. I was misdiagnosed with herpes when I was 1 month before my 18th birthday and it had just come out on the news along with AIDS. There wasn't much information back then, but I can tell you it was scary as hell. You don't know who to talk to about it, and believe me most the world does see it as a curse, not just a little inconvenience. Say the word and half the crowd will scatter.
I had to tell my now husband of 21 years that I was one of those people and really expected him to run. I'm not sure I wouldn't have in the same situation if given the chance earlier in my life. But he didn't. He said he loved me and that we would get through this together. And so we have. But that's not saying that others didn't run as fast as they could.
I've had many friends whose lives have been changed drastically from being told they have herpes. It's not an easy disease mentally or physically. But mostly, emotionally. I wanted to die and came really close if it hadn't been for a good friend. I didn't want my family to get it, so I was afraid to use the same dishes, or go to the same toilet, or for them to drink from the same cup I did. There are support groups, but if someone finds out you’re going to one, it can also ruin your life.
Any STD is traumatic to the person that has it. So be compassionate next time. Unfortunately, I waited 20 years after my diagnosis to find out it was false. And believe me, I didn't know whether to be relieved or just downright pissed off at the doctor that had made the mistake.
Dear Once Terrified,
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from the original fear about Herpes. Today, Dr. Ruth names the virus simply as some blisters. And that’s what they are—uncomfortable blisters THAT ARE CONTAGIOUS. As Match.com’s weekly Suddenly Single advice columnist, I note that we’ve gotten into the cultural habit of having sex with too many poorly chosen partners. If there is any good that has evolved from this issue, let’s hope the virus is used as a social condom in helping to keep responsible people from having indiscriminate sex. Congratulations on your good news. I think it would be beneficial for you to list the POSITIVE ways your life was changed as a result of the (mis)diagnosis—like finding that wonderful husband of yours!
Dear Dr. Gilda,
Regarding you advice in the Suddenly Single article today, I’m appalled at your comparison to someone having herpes and Montel Williams (MS) and Lance Armstrong (cancer). MS and cancer (and a lot of other disabilities) are not diseases that can be passed on to people. People who have herpes and other transmitted diseases that feel these diseases are not so bad (not a death sentence) and have the attitude of so what if I pass it along?, I shouldn’t tell, wait until I get what I want or think I deserve are the problem and that’s why these diseases are out there.
Who wants to get herpes or any other disease because you’re dating someone? No relationship with anyone is worth putting any part of your health at risk?
Someone Who Knows
Please re-read my comments. I NEVER said “so what if I pass it along?, I shouldn’t tell, wait until I get what I want or think I deserve” are attitudes I condone. It sounds like you’ve been on the receiving end of some very nasty peoples’ attitudes. A brilliant lawyer friend of mine has herpes, and has lived with it and has had a happy, married life with two terrific kids. After he got Parkinson’s Disease, the herpes seemed insignificant. That’s my point!
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