In your letter, you want to tell your new date about your permanent but non-life-threatening STI*. You’re just leery of the timing. Many of us can identify; we also have Secrets, parts of our health or history we know we’d need to tell any new partner…someday. But what day?
Unfortunately, science hasn’t specified whether it’s Date 2 or 20. Thanks to our survey respondents and empirical help, though, here are some guidelines that should stand all of us in good stead:
No Sex…Until You Tell
Wise Respondents’ top advice to you? Ix-nay on the ex-say until after you’ve told Mark about your STI (full survey results appear under my signature). After all, there’s no truly safe oral, anal or vaginal sex if one has any of the incurable STI’s.
There’s just safer sex, and disclosure is key to keeping your partner safe. So you’ll need to Woman Up and make sure Mark’s aware before you two go there. From the concern in your letter, I have faith you’ll do the right thing for him.
Interestingly, most of our Wise Respondents had a Secret, but not a sexual Secret. Yet they, too, used abstinence until disclosure as their #1 timing-for-telling strategy.
And it worked: Not one of them was dumped for disclosing their Secret, sexual or otherwise. Why? I suspect it might be related to their #2 advice:
No Telling…Until You Actually Know Each Other
Wise Respondents’ second-most-given advice was to hold off telling until you know Mark well, feel a connection, and/or see that this is getting serious or exclusive.
And I couldn’t agree more. Timing disclosure to match the actual level of intimacy and commitment does more than protect Mark. It protects you~and you’re worth protecting.
—It’s about protecting your body:
You’re not the only one with an STI: The CDC finds that up to 1/3rd of Americans have herpes and/or HPV right now—starting at age 14. And having one STI can open the door to other diseases. For instance, having or contracting either form of herpes increases your odds of getting HIV too, and encountering a partner’s HPV during oral sex ups your likelihood of developing throat or mouth cancer.
Yet many folks –including, possibly, Mark—are asymptomatic and unaware of their own condition. And many others don’t reveal their sexual Secrets even when they do know. Science shows that this dishonesty is particularly true if you’re a casual lay, which is quite likely early in a relationship.
Upshot? Please temper your moral imperative to reveal your history with your duty to protect yourself. Wait—both to have sex and to reveal your Secret. You’ll need to know Mark long enough that you’re nothing casual to him; well enough for him to reveal *his* Secrets; and well enough to show one another the results of *both* his and your blood tests.
—It’s about protecting your heart:
What? Blood tests? But won’t that send Mark running? If you require hemoglobin on Date 2, probably so. But not if you Wait until you’re both in love, or at least heading that way.
What sends most men running—from commitment and honesty if not from bed—is a woman who yields sex too quickly, thus advertising her low status and poor fidelity risk. It reeks of desperation, and there’s never been a perfume with that label.
Having sex too soon literally tends to short-circuit men’s bonding apparatus. But telling too soon, even without sex first, can likewise make folks head for the hills.
To wit, take this quote from a 25-34-year-old man whose prospective girlfriend revealed her herpes diagnosis immediately: “I was moved by her honesty but it ended any romantic feeling I had….stopped me in my tracks….It wasn’t the STD that turned me off so much as the instant seriousness of our new relationship. It was too soon for such a big statement, I hadn’t even kissed her yet…Cleo, wait until Mark needs to know before you tell him….”
Why can’t we tell all up-front—the third-most recommended advice—and have the odds of acceptance on our side?
Because solemn religious injunctions to the contrary, many experiments show that we judge others and are judged in turn. Our judgments are unconscious and rapid, and we especially hang onto what we learn First and Worst. It’s human cognition.
So if Mark knows you’re funny, kind, warm, and beautiful, he’s wowed. But add just one negative adjective—“herpes-positive”—and he’s cowed. And the sooner the Secret adjective appears, the more damaging for your rep. Mark simply does not know enough about you yet for the good to outweigh that (or perhaps any) one Secret.
As one woman age 35-44 astutely said, “There’s no need to put the negatives front and center before giving [Mark] a chance to see the positives.”
Cleo, you were probably looking for something a bit more specific, but I hope this helped nonetheless. My advice, and that of most responding Readers, is clear: Wait to tell Mark until you know this is headed towards a serious relationship, and wait to have sex until after you’ve both told your Secrets—whatever those are.
That might be after a couple of weeks or a couple of months; only you can gauge how invested Mark is and how much you return the feeling. But if Mark really wants you, Waiting a bit will increase his investment, your desirability and your mutual trust while ensuring you’re about more than a diagnosis.
Because love isn’t just for those without a past. And we’re all more than the Secrets we keep.
*STI’s are sexually transmitted infections; the term STD’s is often interchanged for this, meaning sexually transmitted diseases.
Survey RESULTS for Folk Wisdom: When Should We Reveal Difficult Personal Info To A New Date?
—with sincere thanks to the 32 Wise Readers who contributed their answers and insights
Note that this is not a scientific survey. As with other Love Science Folk Wisdom questionnaires, the sampling was non-random. With few exceptions, the results strongly suggest thesurvey held the most appeal for those who experienced *acceptance* after they told a tough Secret to a new partner, or respondents who had never had a Secret to tell to begin with.
Here’s what they said:
RESPONDENT GENDER: 72% women, 28% men
RESPONDENT AGE: 3% were ages 18-24; 34% ages 25-34; 41% ages 35-44; 13% ages 45-54; 3% ages 55-64; 6% were 65-74; and 0% were age 75+.
(Note: Throughout the survey, percentages were rounded to the nearest 10th and may thus total slightly greater or less than 100%.)
RESPONDENT SEXUAL ORIENTATION: 13% self-identified as bisexual, 0% as homosexual, and 88% as heterosexual.
RESPONDENT ANSWERS: HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH TELLING A PARTNER ABOUT A DIFFICULT PERSONAL ISSUE?
Full question text: If you ever had a difficult personal issue that you felt a need to bring up with a new partner, how did you deal with it? Please think of only one relationship as you answer this question, but check all the answers that apply to that relationship.
What kinds of Secrets had our Wise Respondents shared with a partner? Here are some:
—Having Herpes (oral and/or genital), HPV and other non-specified sexually transmitted infections or diseases
—Having clinical depression and/or anxiety or other mental health issues
—Having a chronic disease/condition that was not sexually transmitted
—Being not-quite divorced
—Having a history of sexual abuse
—Having a vasectomy
—Having had a drug addiction and/or alcoholism
—Having borne a child out of wedlock
—Having performance anxiety following many years of celibacy
Most respondents told their Secret before a physical and/or emotional commitment had been made. 31% told before having sex with the new partner for the first time; 16% told before the end of the third date; 9% told after the third date; and 9% told before deciding to date each other exclusively.
However, other people didn’t tell at all, usually because they’d never had a Secret to reveal (25%). Or the relationship ended before they had revealed the issue (9%). Or they’d never had a partner (3%). Another person reported having kept a Secret they had actually shared, but had shared much later than they wish they had.
(Note: The totals exceed 100% because people could check all the options that applied.)
RESPONDENT ANSWERS: HOW DID YOUR PARTNER RESPOND AFTER YOU TOLD HIM/HER ABOUT YOUR DIFFICULT PERSONAL ISSUE?
Full question text: If you ever had a difficult personal issue that you felt a need to bring up with a new partner, how did your partner deal with it? Please think of only one relationship as you answer this question.
NONE –0%—got dumped for revealing difficult personal info, although two respondents had ended a relationship after others revealed Secrets to them, and 9% had partners who reacted negatively although they stayed in the relationship.
60%—the majority of our sample—had a partner who reacted positively and remained in the relationship after hearing the Secret.
The remainder of the sample had not revealed a Secret to a partner, either because they’d never had a partner (3%); or they’d never had a Secret (25%). 3% mistakenly reported having kept a Secret they had actually shared, but had shared much later than they wished they had.
Select Wise Respondents’ answers:
—Woman, age 18-24: My ex thought that depression and anxiety were all just made up and it was just in my head. Yes, it is all in my head- but i can’t control it. he was very non-supportive and although that was not the direct cause of our break-up it was definitely a reason i didn’t fight to keep him.
—Woman, age 25-34: [Whose relationship ended before she could reveal her Secret]: He flaked out after a few dates, so I’m glad I didn’t tell him.
—Woman, age 35-44: [Husband reacted non-supportively after she revealed, after marriage, that she had been sexually abused as a child]: My husband was very angry that I had not told him about it sooner and wanted me to confront the perpetrator in a way that I did not feel comfortable with. That was 5 years ago and we still disagree on my choice not to confront the perpetrator.
—Man, age 35-44: I had a herpes outbreak two decades ago and have not had one since. However, I still carry genital and oral herpes viruses and test positive for both. I have had a few partners who test negative for both types yet who remained in the relationship. We practiced safe sex. I discussed the issue on the second date, prior to having sex.
—Woman, age 35-44: I had clinical depression and decided to let my boyfriend know I was receiving treatment for that. I told him after we’d been out a couple times, but before things got serious. I didn’t want to get invested and find out it was a deal breaker for him, or to lie about something important. We later married and I’ve overcome the depression.
—Woman, age 25-34: I am a type 1 diabetic and….When I began dating my now husband I told him about this right away…..the way I saw it was that this part of me was never going to change so if he had a problem with it I would rather find out sooner than later…..He had no problem….has supported me, including cooking meals while keeping track of nutritional info and going to a diabetic educator with me….
—Man, age 35-44: ….I have new issues now.
RESPONDENT ANSWERS: WHEN SHOULD CLEO TELL HER NEW DATE ABOUT CLEO’S STD?
Full question text: In the latest Love Science, Cleo says that she’s got an STD (sexually transmitted disease). It’s not life-threatening, but she is confused about when to reveal this fact to Mark, the man she’s just begun dating and whom she likes very much. If Cleo were your close friend, what advice would you give her about when to tell Mark?
In order, here was the most frequent advice from our Wise Readers:
—Tell him before having sex (of any kind) = 59% (22% of the men and 74% of the women)
—Tell him only once you know there’s a connection and the relationship will become serious, or you’re becoming exclusive; get to know him first! = 40% (33% of the men and 43% of the women)
—There’s no exact time to tell, but err on the side of revealing your Secret too soon rather than too late = 26% (22% of the men and 18% of the women)
—Tell him from the start/by the second date = 16% (22% of the men and 18% of the women)
—Tell him after 5-10 dates = 9% (0% of the men 4% of the women)
(Note: Respondents could give more than one piece of advice in this open-ended question, so totals are higher than 100%.)
Select Wise Respondents’ answers (more to be revealed in the Q&A):
—Man, age 55-64: Cleo definitely needs to be upfront with her date as soon as she feels it is to be serious and absolutely before she has sex. As uncomfortable as it might be to live with her own affliction, she will feel a lot worse passing it on to someone who cares for her and who just might surprise her in staying with her….Telling someone after the fact is apt to lose someone for sure.
—Woman, age 35-44: This is sexual, so definitely tell him before any genital contact. I would not tell him until I knew I liked him well enough that something long term was brewing and I wasn’t opening myself up for gossip if we broke up. That might be two dates or it might be ten, depends on how you feel about Mark and how long you can stand keeping things to yourself.
—Man, age 35-44: I believe that difficult personal issues should be brought up on the second date [and issues that don’t bear on the person’s daily life or which the person has learned to accept can come out later]. You need the first date to determine whether you like the person or not and vice-versa….But I think one should only introduce the personal issues, not turn the date into a therapy session, and should only be introduced if the personal issue has a direct bearing on the relationship [or if the issue weighs heavily on the partner and affects the person’s daily life]. So, sexually transmitted disease that you still have and can be contagious? Second date, pre sex. STD that happened 10 years ago and was cured with anti-biotics? That can wait….until that individual feels comfortable relating it. And I don’t think you need to go into that much detail, there’s a balance between informing your partner and scaring them away.
—Woman, age 25-34: I would suggest waiting until you get to know each other better-maybe once you have decided to date exclusively would be a good time to address the issue. But most importantly this must be discussed prior to the relationship becoming physical. If you have decided to be exclusive this shows some level of comittment and might mean he would care enough to work through this issue with you rather than run away.
—Man, age 25-34: I would not wait to tell Mark….He will have to know, and it is unfair for him to remain unaware of this personal issue as it has the potential to affect him on a personal level if you become sexually intimate. Accept the situation, and move forward knowing that you are doing the right thing in revealing this fact. Consider the possibility that Mark will not pull away and be completely understanding. Perhaps he has his own personal issue weighing heavily on his conscience….
—Woman, age 45-54: Be sure that he’s “the one” before you make the next move. If he is he won’t scare off easily. Tell him before you make love so you can take precautions.
—Man, age 35-44: My best advice is that there is no way to know the exact right time for sure. And if you are going to be wrong, be wrong by being too early rather than by being too late with the information…. But the good news is that it only takes acceptance from one which will wipe away the rejection of all who came before….
—Woman, age 18-24: Even though it’s not life-threatening, it’s obviously life-altering or we wouldn’t be having this discussion. So if it’s a big enough deal to be thinking about when to tell him, then you better make sure it’s before you cross any boundaries. Other than that, you should wait to see if you even have a connection with him and see if the relationship even takes itself that direction…..[if it does], BE HONEST. tell him how, when, where, who- whatever will make him more comfortable with it. Mark needs to see that you’re on top of things and not a skeezy ho-bag. 😉
—Woman, age 25-34: Don’t wait too long. My boyfriend waited to bring up his marital/sexual history until we started “officially dating” (we’d been on several dates before that over a several month period), and it was too much for me to handle at that time, mostly because I felt he had been dishonest with me by hiding it. I broke up with him the following day and it took several weeks before I had adjusted to the news and we were able to re-start the dating process. I don’t know if it would have been better/easier if he had told me earlier . But it definitely would have been SO MUCH WORSE if he had waited even longer to tell me.
—Woman, age 25-34: Cleo definitely needs to tell Mark before they have sex. And she needs to tell him when they’re not hot-and-heavy-in-the-moment-about-to-have-sex. That said, I totally understand that it’s not info she wants spread all over town. She should follow whatever cues are available in what Mark says during their time together to try to ascertain whether or not it would be a deal breaker for him. If she finds reason to think it would be, she should break off the relationship or go ahead and tell him. If he seems more open-minded, she can wait until their relationship develops and they are close to consummating it.
—Woman, age 35-44: My husband has herpes. He revealed it to me when we had been dating exclusively and sexually active for about one month. I was already in love with him and we had talked about getting married. And we did. I did lots of research and lots of people have herpes. I’m glad he told me when he told me and I could see how upset he was and what a dealbreaker he thought it might be. So, my experience informs my advice: I think it would depend so much on the people involved. I sense that an issue like this could be a real barometer for how much or how little someone cares about another person….Maybe he has some secrets of his own that he’d like to share.
—Man, age 35-44: I think it is in Cleo’s best interest to get to know Mark better before discussing her personal issue with him; as well as entering into a sexual relationship with him. It does not appear, at this point, that the relationship has any clear direction, so she should enjoy getting to know him, dating him, etc…. I also think that she should tread lightly on getting things too heated, too quickly. She does not want to find herself in a situation where she’s “forced” to reveal her personal issue at a time that she is not prepared. In getting to know Mark, she will hopefully develop a keen sense of how he responds to certain situations, what words he responds to positively, and how sensitive he is. After knowing each other better, they may decide to take their relationship to the next level and that should be the time she has “the talk” with him….. On the other hand, after knowing each other better, they may decide that a long-term relationship is not what’s in store for them and therefore “the talk” does not need to be had….
—Woman, age 35-44: This is clearly not the most honest approach, but I would tell her to have a “planned spontaneous confession”. She should keep putting off sex until she knows what direction they are moving in anyway. So once she can tell that they want to step-up the relationship, but before it gets serious, she can tearily blurt out her secret as the reason why she’s been so fearful about getting close….
—Woman, age 25-34: ….there’s no need to put the negatives front and center before giving them a chance to see the positives. I’ve had to tell two partners I have HPV and both stayed with me. One asked to go do some research first and the other immediately replied it was no big deal. Neither accused me of withholding information for too long. [Note: she revealed her issue before having sex.]
—Woman, age 25-34: Tell him [now]. Honesty with yourself, to me, is key….You are not a bad person for having an STD, in fact studies show one in four people do…..Remember, there is nothing “wrong” with you, and if he is really a good guy, he will understand.
—Woman, age 25-34: Wait until you have assured yourself of his discretion and trustworthiness. He should have amply demonstrated respect & kindness & willingness to commit ( = being True Boyfriend Material) before you broach such a sensitive topic. Tell him before you first sleep with him, if your relationship gets to that stage. He should also have disclosed his issues by then.
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Do you have a question for Duana? Contact her at Duana@lovesciencemedia.com.
Related Love Science articles:
Cleo’s letter regarding when to reveal her STI:
Why not to be easy, ladies:
How women respond to casual sex:
How men respond to casual sex:
What if a woman already had sex too soon?
How to become high-status as a woman if you’ve already lost it:
The author wishes to thank the following scientists and sources:
—Janet Shibley Hyde and John D. Delamater, for Understanding Human Sexuality . Also Robert Crooks and Karla Baur, for Our Sexuality. Everyone with a body needs a human sexuality textbook; these are my favorites, and provided the starting place for much research in this article.
— David G. Myers, for his enduring Social Psychology text that continues to inform my students and me as we explore how people interact with, influence and think about one another—including how and why we make snap judgments.
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D. and Love Science Media, 2011.