How to Disclose Your HIV Status to Someone You're Dating

We tend to use the word "normalization" a lot when talking about HIV. It is meant to reflect the fact that people with HIV can now not only have a normal quality of life, but they can also plan for the future, have kids, and carry on healthy sexual relationships if provided with the proper treatment and a few preventive guidelines.

But even with these facts in mind, many people with HIV still find dating enormously stressful. The very pursuit of romance can open that person up to vulnerabilities that go well beyond the simple fear of rejection. After all, disclosing your HIV status to a friend is one thing; disclosing it to a romantic interest brings up a whole other set of issues and concerns.

(Laws in some states require that people disclose their HIV-positive status to sexual partners. While there are other important reasons to disclose your status to any sexual partners, this is an additional factor to consider.)

couple talking
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Meeting at Online Dating Sites

Sometimes the fear of disclosure is so great that people will access online dating sites, like, to meet their match or turn to anonymous hookup sites where they can freely post their HIV status. (While the popularity of these sites speak for themselves, there are a number of precautions one should always take in an online dating environment.)

Dating in real life, of course, doesn't afford such shortcuts. Disclosing your HIV status to a love interest can be a challenging, even frightening process. But with a little time and preparation, as well as a degree of self-reflection, there are ways to significantly reduce these anxieties.

9 "How-To's" of Dating Disclosure

  1. Start with self-acceptance. Self-acceptance goes beyond simply telling yourself you're okay with your status. It's about how you see yourself as a person with HIV. It's one thing to wish you never had it; it's entirely another to feel shame. Start by asking yourself how you see the future. Are you optimistic or are you harboring doubts about all of the "what if's" that might happen as a result of your disease? If it's the latter, you may need to work through those issues first, either by meeting with a counselor or joining a support group of like-minded people who have gone through the same things as you.
  2. Build a support system. There is really no part of HIV in which one benefits from complete isolation. Find a trusted friend or family member to whom you can turn to for support—one who understands who you are as a person, but will also take the time to learn what HIV is and means. By going through the process with someone else, you can begin to finds ways of communicating your experience—and your attitude about the disease—in a way that is positive and effective.
  3. Educate yourself. The more you understand about HIV transmission and prevention, the better you'll be at normalizing HIV in your life. Start by educating yourself about treatment as prevention (TasP), used to minimize your infectivity, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which can lower the susceptibility of your partner. The more you understand these approaches, the more confident you'll be in approaching a potential love interest.
  4. Examine your possible reactions. Simply put, how do you think you will react if you're rejected? Conversely, how will you react if you're not? Both of these scenarios are important. Feeling "gratitude" for being accepted (as opposed to, say, relief or happiness) can be just as problematic as being thrown into an emotional tailspin if you're not. Examine why you are feeling the emotions you do and, if needed, work through them with a friend or counselor.
  5. Accept that your date is "allowed" to reject you (in the same way you are "allowed" to reject your date). There's a multitude of reasons why people choose not to pursue a romance. Some may be unwilling or unable to wrap their heads around HIV. If so, that's their issue and not yours. Personalizing it can sometimes be more about your unresolved doubts and feelings than the limitations of the person rejecting you.
  6. Don't think of the disclosure as a "bombshell" or something you should apologize for. The bottom line is that anyone who wants to pursue a sexual relationship should discuss their sexual history and practices. By apologizing for your status, you immediately place yourself at fault. Remember that what you say and how you say it is a reflection of your personal attitude. If you express fear, uncertainty, or anger, that is what your date will read.
  7. Don't lead with an exit line. Saying, "I can understand if you decide not to take this any further" is already defeatist. Allow your date to make up his or her own mind.
  8. If your love interest decides to move forward, discuss ways to do so. Remember that you are now his or her support system. As such, you may need to refer your date to a doctor or HIV professional who can answer any questions or concerns that may arise. And while it would be wise to get tested—everyone should—it's important to give that person enough space to make his or her own decisions.
  9. If your love interest decides not to move forward, turn to your support network. Remember that normalization is a process and that, with perseverance, your skills we develop over time. Use rejection as a way to identify the emotions or vulnerabilities you have yet to resolve. In the end, it's fair to be stung or hurt in the face of rejection, but don't allow it to isolate you. If you are feeling depressed or unable to cope, seek professional help.

By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.