You’ve been seeing someone pretty great for a while now.
You’ve had dinners and movie nights. You know what coffee they drink and how they feel about pineapple on pizza. You’ve started mentioning them to your family and you’ve even met a few of their friends. You’re really enjoying getting to know each other and you think things might be getting serious.
But recently they’ve told you they’re living with HIV, or they might have said they’re ‘undetectable’.
If this is the first time you’ve dated someone living with HIV, you’re possibly a bit unsure of how to process the information. You may have a lot of conflicting emotions and you’ve probably got some questions.
This doesn’t have to be the end of your fairy-tale romance. Before you make any big decisions, take some time to work out how you feel – and do some research to help answer your questions.
I’m confused and not sure what to think – what should I do right now?
The best thing to do right now is just be honest.
If you need some time to process the information, that’s totally normal. Let them know gently and respectfully that you’re working through your thoughts, so they are at least aware of what you’re feeling. While it may not be possible to put a time frame on it, try to make a date to at least touch base and let them know how you’re feeling when you are ready.
Most importantly, don’t brush them off or ghost them. The fact that they’ve told you they’re living with HIV shows that they respect and trust you as someone they may want to pursue a relationship with. Show them the same respect in how you respond.
I don’t know if I fully understand what they’ve told me. What does it mean to be living with HIV and “undetectable”?
Science and medicine have come a long way in the treatment of HIV. Today, when people living with HIV maintain regular treatment, it suppresses the virus to the point that it can’t be detected by current viral load testing – and that is good news for their health. This is known as having an undetectable viral load (UVL), often just called being ‘undetectable’.
What this means is that HIV can now be managed long-term, much like diabetes. As long as they continue to take their treatment (usually one or two pills daily), your potential partner can live a long and healthy life, just like anyone else.
Take some time to do a bit of reading on HIV – not just on the science but also on some of the personal stories of people living with HIV. The better informed you are, the better ally (and maybe even partner) you’ll be in the future.
Is there any risk of HIV transmission? What if we’ve already had sex?
What’s also incredible about undetectable is that they can’t pass on HIV , even if you’ve been having sex without condoms or PrEP. You may see this referred to as ‘U=U’, which means ‘undetectable equals untransmittable’.
There have been numerous large, well-documented international studies into living with HIV, particularly on how being undetectable affects the likelihood of a person passing on HIV. In these studies, where over 89,000 acts of condomless sex were recorded between couples where one partner was HIV negative and the other had an undetectable viral load, there were zero cases of HIV transmission – that’s right, not even one!
That means that as long as your partner is undetectable, you can enjoy the freedom and intimacy of your sex life together without worrying about HIV.
Why didn’t they tell me sooner?
This is a tricky question, and one that can be frustrating for people living with HIV.
There’s no single answer and it can depend on any number of factors, including how much they trust you and what sort of experiences they’ve had in the past. Every person living with HIV will have their own boundaries and ‘policies’ around disclosing. Some may want to be certain that they’re willing to invest emotionally in the relationship before they disclose. Others may just want to get to know you a bit before they trust you with this very sensitive and personal information about themselves.
One reason common to almost every person living with HIV is the experience of stigma and rejection based on their status. Added to this are the possible feelings of shame and trauma around their own HIV journey, which can make disclosing to a romantic partner extremely difficult.
The most important thing to remember is that they’ve chosen to share something significant with you because they want you in their life. Show kindness and empathy, and take it as a sign of how much they care about you and your relationship.
What sort of a future can we have together?
That’s up to you! Move in together. Go travelling. Open a cafe. Get a dog (or a cat).
People living with HIV can experience the same beautiful, fulfilling and healthy long-term relationships as anyone else. But every relationship takes two (or more, if that’s your thing) to tango.
Your potential partner’s HIV status doesn’t mean you need to stop enjoying your romantic dinners, weekends away and mind-blowing sex. You can keep getting to know each other and start building whatever future you want together, full of all the same opportunities you’ve been imagining (and probably a few fights about who does the dishes).
So don’t give up on that fairy-tale romance – your own beautiful love story could be just beginning.
This article was written by a community contributor and produced as part of a series aimed at tackling HIV stigma. Learn more about HIV stigma and how we can be better allies.