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positive-negative relationship
Jul 16, 1997

I have entered a serious relationship with someone who is healthy but HIV positive. As far as I know, I am HIV negative. I want to be as close as I can and stay negative. What can I do and what can I do? Also, are there any good books I can read regarding the emotional issues I am getting myself in for? Thanks, Happy and sad

Response from Mr. Sowadsky

Hi. Thank you for your question. As the AIDS epidemic continues, we're seeing more and more couples together where one partner is infected, and the other is not. The technical term for this is called "discordant couples." When you think about it, there are a number of unique situations that discordant couples have to deal with, ranging from safer sex issues, to being a caregiver when the positive partner gets ill.

I want to make everyone aware of the issues that these couples deal with everyday. I personally have known several couples where one partner is positive, and the other is negative. Such relationships can be quite stressful, and rewarding at the same time. Some negative people will not date a positive person, because of fears of infection, and not wanting to take the role of a caregiver. Many positive people tend to date other positives, since both partners already know what the other is going through. But there are those couples that hit it off quite well, despite their different HIV status.

Probably the biggest issue to be dealt with here is safer sex. Yes, it's true, HIV positive persons often continue to have a sex life, and a great sex life at that. But great care must be taken so that the negative partner doesn't get infected. Some couples prefer not to engage in higher risk activities like anal intercourse or oral sex (even with protection). Other couples continue to engage in these activities, but use protection every time. Either way works great, depending on what the couple personally decides to do. Yes, you can have sex with a positive person, enjoy every moment of it, and still not get infected yourself. I know some couples who from time to time, slip up, and don't use protection every time. This is where infection issues really becomes apparent. However, in several studies where one partner was positive and the other was negative, when safer sex was practiced every time, and practiced correctly, the negative partner stayed negative. Safer sex is not 100% protection, but the risks of becoming infected is very low when safer sex is practiced every time. And despite what many people believe, safer sex can be fun, erotic, and very fulfilling. For more information about safer sex, please go to the "Prevention (Sexual)" area of this webpage.

One issue that I've seen come up is that everyone assumes that if you ever dated a positive person, that you must be positive yourself. If you had unprotected sex with a positive person, yes it's a possibility. But if you always practiced safer sex, the negative partner could very well stay negative. You can have an on-going relationship with an infected person and stay negative. But there's also that stereotype that goes, "well, he dated so-and-so who had AIDS, so I'm sure he's got it too." Many negative people will not date an infected person for fear of being stereotyped that they "must be infected too."

Probably the next biggest issue with discordant couples is the caregiver issue. As AIDS progresses, the negative partner starts more and more to take on the role of taking care of their partner. Many people don't feel comfortable in this role. They don't think they have the inner strength it takes to take care of a person with AIDS. But I have spoken many times to lovers/caregivers who found the role to be quite rewarding in the long run, and they found inner strength in themselves that they thought they never had. Yes, as time and the disease progressed, their sex lives together became less and less (at least physically). But emotionally, the ties bound stronger and stronger.

One issue to deal with is the issue of death. Although our treatments have improved significantly, some folks are scared to start a relationship with a positive person, because they don't want to deal with their partner dying. This is a tough issue to deal with. It is true that most (but not all) people with AIDS will eventually die of the disease. But death can literally be years down the line. And a person with AIDS isn't sick all of the time. Death's door is not right around the corner all the time. A negative person can have a strong, happy, and fulfilling relationship with someone whose infected for many years.

There are support groups specifically for families and friends of people with HIV. These support groups deal with issues such as yours. To find a local support group in your area, contact your local AIDS Hotline. To find the number of your local AIDS Hotline, go to the "Hotlines and Service Organizations" area here at The Body. There are also live support groups available through several online services, such as "America Online (AOL)." These online support groups are often found in the AIDS information or Health information areas. If you are a member of America Online, and want more information about HIV/AIDS support groups on AOL, contact me directly at my e-mail address listed below.

Of course, it's impossible for me to write about every issue that people in discordant relationships face. But I want everyone to be aware that we need to have support and compassion for these couples. The person with HIV/AIDS goes through a lot of mental and physical anguish. They need your support. But the negative partner also goes through a lot of stressful situations themselves. They need your support too! Remember these words....you're not dating and loving a virus, you're dating and loving a person. Think about it.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to call the Centers for Disease Control at 1.800.232.4636 (Nationwide).



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