January 12, 2011
The number of HIV serodiscordant couples in the United States is growing. While these relationships underscore the power of love over fear, they also bear witness to the challenges of living with HIV, even three decades into the AIDS epidemic.
"I know more and more people who are choosing HIV-infected partners," said Lora Branch, former director of the STD/HIV division at the Chicago Department of Public Health. "It's not that unusual anymore."
Though it is not known how many HIV-positive people are in serodiscordant couples, a 2001 study in the journal Family Planning Perspectives offered some insight. It found that half the HIV-positive men and women surveyed about their desire to have children said their spouse was HIV-negative, according to Dr. Deborah Cohan, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California-San Francisco.
Branch believes same-sex and opposite-sex couples comprise equal numbers of serodiscordant relationships, which span the range of racial and class categories.
Knowing when to disclose one's HIV status to a prospective partner can be difficult, said Celeste Watkins-Hayes, an HIV/AIDS researcher and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. In some circumstances, a person enters a relationship not knowing their partner is infected, either because the information is not disclosed right away or it is not yet known. The eventual disclosure can be an emotional rollercoaster.
"For many people it is a difficult relationship because it comes with guilt on the infected person's part. There is always this layer of stigma and shame, which is very real in this country, particularly in the black community," said longtime Chicago HIV/AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton. "That is a barrier that must be overcome before couples get to a really good place and can be comfortable."