“trustingHim” posted the following over at the Ask Dr. Loving section of my website, drloving.net. I enlisted the help and expertise of SofR’s resident sex researcher, Dr. Amy Muise, who ultimately penned the majority of this response.
Do you have any insight on relationships where one partner is STD free, and the other is not? I have a friend who has been very forthcoming about his sexual experiences in his past and how he was diagnosed with an STD when he was 20 years old.
His honesty has just made me wonder whether or not there are couples out there who are successful in a relationship/marriage that is without sex (due to one partner having an STD). I am very attracted to him and although he has an STD, knowing that does not repulse or drive me away. But it does make me seriously consider, if I were ever to be with him in a relationship, would it work without sex? (I don’t think I would want to expose myself or any potential children to an STD – so at this point in time I cannot imagine having sex/sexual relations with him). — trustingHim
We want to start our response by congratulating you. It sounds as if you have found a wonderful guy and that you have already developed a rather profound sense of commitment towards him and your budding relationship. This is evident from the fact that you’re seeking a way to cope with the situation, but also by the fact that you have what researchers refer to as a long-term orientation towards him. For example, you mention “potential children”; this type of planning for the future is one of the defining features of commitment.1
Now, on to your question. Admittedly, the research on relationship and sexual satisfaction among couples living with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is limited. But, your general question can be addressed by drawing on studies that focus on couples where one partner has HIV/AIDS (we are not presuming, nor believe, that’s what your friend has). In short – YES, couples can certainly have happy, successful relationships when one partner is diagnosed with a STI. For example, researchers have found that the HIV status of the members of gay couples does not influence relationship or sexual satisfaction, or sexual frequency.2 Given that same-sex relationships function almost identically to heterosexual relationships, we can safely assume that living with HIV or another STI, regardless of sexuality, does not make romantic relationships any less satisfying or less sexually active.
As you’ve probably noticed, we’re not presuming that you’d actually have a relationship with no sexual contact. Importantly, with some research and education, you’ll find that abstinence from sex is not your only option. Again, work with same-sex couples comes in handy here. In one study, gay male couples who were more committed, invested and satisfied in their relationships were more likely to negotiate safer sex practices.3 That is, within a loving, committed relationship it is possible to enjoy sex and greatly reduce the risk of STI transmission (more on that below). We also encourage you to adopt a broad definition of “sex,” one that is not limited solely to intercourse. There are many sexual activities that you and your partner can participate in that reduce the risk of any STI transmission (e.g., manual stimulation, oral sex, mutual masturbation; if you’re looking for ideas, try blowfish.com to get the creative energies flowing). There are also alternative ways you can provide each other with affection and sexual pleasure; don’t underestimate the power of simply talking about what turns you both on. As in any relationship, you will only want to pursue the activities that you are comfortable with; we just think it is important to know your options and the benefits and risks associated with them.
Finally, you did not mention the STI that your friend is living with, but we encourage you to do your research and learn everything you can about your friend’s infection. For many STIs there are medications that an individual can take to reduce the risk of transmitting it to their partner, and other precautions (such as consistent condom use, lower risk activities, etc.) that can decrease the risk of transmission. Additionally, should you ever decide it would be nice to start a family with your partner, there are also precautions that can be taken to reduce the risk that infections are passed on to the fetus or child during birth if you were to ever contract the STI (and the transmission of STIs during childbirth, such as herpes and HPV, is very rare). We’ve provided a few resources below to get you started; we also encourage you to talk to a medical professional or visit your local Planned Parenthood Clinic for more information. We are confident that with some open discussion with your friend and with a healthcare professional, you’ll find the situation is not as dire as it currently seems.
1Arriaga, X. B., & Agnew, C. R. (2001). Being committed: Affective, cognitive, and conative components of relationship commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1190-1203.
2Peplau, L. A., Cochrane, S. D., & Mays, V. M. (1997). A national survey of the intimate relationships of African American lesbians and gay men: A look at commitment, satisfaction, sexual behavior, and HIV disease. In B. Greene (Ed.) Ethnic and cultural diversity among lesbians and gay men (pp 11-38). Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.
3Davidovich, U., de Wit, J. & Stroebe, W. (2006). Relationship characteristics and risk of HIV infection: Rusbult’s Investment Model and sexual risk behavior of gay men in steady relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 22-40.
Dr. Amy Muise – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.