In a new relationship, conversations about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and diseases (STDs) can seem unsexy. In a long-term relationship, they might seem unnecessary or accusatory.
Although people use the terms STD and STI interchangeably, there are a few small differences. STIs are infections transmitted through sexual contact, while STDs are diseases that result from STIs.
STI is also the most up-to-date term. Sex educators and healthcare professionals prefer the term STI because it’s more accurate and has less stigma attached to it than “disease”.
The stigma surrounding STIs not only makes them a difficult subject to navigate but also increases the rates of transmission. That’s why openly discussing sexual health is crucial for safeguarding both your and your partner’s health.
Broaching the topic is often easier said than done, and while it might not be enjoyable, it doesn’t have to be harrowing. We give you the best advice on how to discuss sexual health in a relationship, and explain why it’s important to talk about STIs with your partner — whether new or long-term.
Whether you’re entering a new relationship or you’ve been with your partner for a while and have decided to stop using protection (or received a positive test result), you should feel comfortable having a conversation about STIs.
Because STIs are spread through sexual contact, anyone sexually active should be aware of the risks. STIs are incredibly common, and around one in five people in the United States have an STI. If left untreated, STIs like chlamydia and HPV can lead to more serious health complications such as infertility and cervical cancer, so it’s not worth risking your health to simply avoid an awkward conversation.
“Often these conversations are difficult due to the stigma associated with STIs,” explains psychosexual and relationship therapist Aoife Drury.
“This stigma is layered with the misinformation and poor education that has perpetuated shame. This can result in conversations surrounding STIs being left in the dark. However, to ease shame we must let in some light through opening up the discourse and normalizing these all-important conversations.”
Aside from preventing the transmission of STIs, having a frank conversation about sexual health can ultimately bring you and your partner together. “Having open dialogues about our lives are important to our overall health and wellbeing,” adds Drury. “Vulnerable conversations facilitate connection and deeper understanding of each other.
Research shows that people who feel comfortable disclosing their STI status to their partner have more positive feelings about their sexual self-esteem than those who don’t, which can play an important role in relationship satisfaction.
Being able to talk about difficult or awkward subjects can foster trust and intimacy, and looking after each other’s well-being is a crucial part of a healthy relationship. So rather than seeing it as something unsexy or clinical, think of STI conversations as an opportunity to be vulnerable with your partner and practice honest communication.
The short answer is: yes. Although being in a long-term committed relationship reduces your risk of contracting an STI, it doesn’t mean you’re completely out of the woods.
Most STIs are asymptomatic, which means they show no signs or symptoms. Sometimes, STIs can share symptoms with other health conditions, so it’s entirely possible to have an undiagnosed and untreated infection while you’re in a long-term relationship and not even know it.
Some STIs can also be dormant for months or even years. This means you or your partner may have contracted an STI from a previous sexual partner, but the STI only starts causing symptoms now that you’re together.
An STI in an exclusive relationship doesn’t necessarily mean your partner cheated on you. Although, yes, an STI can be a result of infidelity, it could also mean that either you or your partner didn’t get tested before you started dating and the symptoms are just showing up now.
Some people may worry that talking about STIs with your long-term partner is a sign of distrust, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
Routine STI testing is essential whether you’re dating several people or you’re in an exclusive relationship, so having a conversation about STIs is a sign of mutual care and respect.
Telling your partner you have an STI or that they gave you an STI isn’t an easy conversation to have, especially when you don’t know how they’ll react.
Stick to the facts and remain as calm as possible. Try to be understanding and supportive, and remember that navigating tricky topics in a relationship is a skill that takes time and practice.
If you've been wondering exactly how to talk about STIs with your partner here are some tips to help you bring it up.
Start the conversation on the right note and make it clear that you’re coming from a compassionate place.
When you bring up the subject, communicate to your partner that you care about them and why this conversation is important to you. This frames the conversation in a more positive light and will show you’re thinking about your mutual best interest.
“I think context is key,” explains Jordan Dixon, a psychosexual psychotherapist at The Thougthouse Partnership London. “I would always recommend broaching the conversation from a place of mutual respect and from the dynamics of being a team playing together,” she adds.
When discussing STIs with your partner, you should have the mindset that STIs are incredibly common, and it doesn’t mean that either one of you is “dirty” or untrustworthy.
STIs don’t reflect who you are as a person or romantic partner, they’re just a matter of health. If your boyfriend or girlfriend gave you an STI, try to avoid placing blame.
“Let them know this is not about trust issues, cheating suspicions, or their sexual history,” Dixon explains. “When reaching a decision about STI testing, the focus is for the greater good of the relationship together towards encouraging the rewards of having sex free of STIs and ultimately more play and more sustainable fun.”
“Having conversations that may be difficult, painful, or triggering, it's important to put empathy at the core,” says Drury. “Meet these discussions with compassion, an open mind, and an open heart.”
“It's helpful to ensure that the conversation isn't engaged with blame and interrogation. This often results in defensiveness and turning away from each other,” adds Dury. “Allow it to come from a place of understanding. Effective communication is key, with using 'I statements’, wearing your heart on your sleeve, and listening with presence.”
Remember that getting a positive result doesn’t mean your partner cheated on you, or that they passed it on purpose. Even if you think it goes without saying, it won’t hurt to tell your partner that you’re not judging or accusing them.
STIs are a nuisance but most are treatable and/or manageable, so it’s entirely possible for a relationship to survive an STI diagnosis.
Chances are, your partner will be glad you brought the subject up, even if they might feel a little awkward at first (which is completely understandable).
But it’s also possible that your partner won’t take it well. Whether you’re asking them to get tested, or telling them you have an STI, they might react with disbelief, frustration, or even anger. While that might not be the reaction you hoped for, sexual health is a taboo topic and not everyone will be comfortable talking about it.
“If our partner is resistant to testing, it can help to try and find out why and remain curious vs. accusatory,” says Dixon. “Sometimes people can be afraid or embarrassed. Either way, if we can keep the focus on what’s best for our health and our partners’ health, and sexual health we can usually get to a good outcome. It’s a hard conversation to have.”
If your partner reacts negatively, try to remain calm. Remind them that STIs are incredibly common and almost inevitable and that you can get STIs in a long-term relationship without cheating. Despite their reaction, it’s important to be empathetic and to understand where they’re coming from. Ask your partner what their concerns are, and try to find a solution together.
If the conversation isn’t moving forward, or if it turns into an argument, you can always stop the conversation and come back to it when they’ve had some time to think about it. Keep in mind that your partner’s reaction is out of your control, but they should stay respectful toward you and be able to discuss without hurting your feelings.
“If our partner(s) simply doesn’t think it’s important, I would rethink the suitability of these partner(s),” Dixon warns. “No one wants to be on either side of a positive test scenario, but in my experience, the large majority of partners who are told they were exposed to an STI are really glad that the other person had the decency to tell them. In the end, we may end up feeling closer than ever before.”
If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, here are some openers you can use.
We’ve been together for a while but we’ve never spoken about STIs, maybe we should talk about it?
I’m a little nervous to bring this up, but I care about our health and think it’s important to talk about STIs.
Since we’ve been having unprotected sex it might be a good idea to get tested for an STI. I’m sure neither of us has one but often they don’t cause symptoms so it’s best to be safe than sorry!
I realized it’s almost time for my annual STI screening, would you like to come with me so we can both get tested?
I wanted to tell you that I recently got tested for STIs and all results came back negative. Have you had an STI before? Did you get them treated?
I wanted to be honest with you and tell you that recently I found out I had an STI, but I had it treated and I don’t have it anymore. But it made me realize how common they are and I want to make sure we don’t pass anything to each other. Have you been tested recently?
I want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect each other so I wanted to ask you when you last got tested for STIs.
I know we’re not exclusive yet, so in the interest of looking after our well-being, I wanted to ask if you’re having (unprotected) sex with anyone else.