How to talk to your partner about health issues

Talking about dinner, work, children, money and household responsibilities with a partner is commonplace. But, for many couples, it’s not as easy to discuss personal health issues.

If you are dealing with a medical concern, how can you address the matter with your significant other?

If your health issue is a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) or HIV/AIDS, your partner could also be directly affected. He or she will need to get tested, and you both will need to practice safe sex at all times. As such, you should broach this matter as soon as possible. Ask your doctor, counselor or support group for ideas and literature to help guide your conversation.

If your health condition is not of the type that can be sexually transmitted, is now the right time to bring this topic up with your significant other? Consider the length of time you’ve been in a relationship and the level of openness you and your partner have. (You might not want to talk about a digestive or reproductive problem with a new partner or a significant other who never discusses normal bodily functions.) It’s perfectly fine to wait to address the matter, as long as: 1) you aren’t lying to your partner; and 2) you don’t need your significant other’s support at this time.

Before you talk to your partner, it will help if you’ve reached a level of acceptance surrounding your condition. (No one likes health problems, but it will be easier for you to discuss it after you’ve processed some of your feelings.) You might find it valuable to write about the experience and accompanying emotions in a journal or blog, join a support group, talk to friends who have dealt with health issues, or meet with a counselor or clergy.

Once you feel more comfortable with your situation, how should you proceed?

1. Prepare your talking points beforehand. Write down notes or review how you will address the conversation in your head prior to actually bringing it up with your partner;

2. Consider your significant other’s frame of reference to help guide the discussion. Has your partner had his or her own health problems? Is your significant other a compassionate individual? Has anyone in his or her life had a medical condition? If so, how did he or she react?

3. Once you determine your significant other’s frame of reference, try to put yourself in his or her shoes. Will your partner think that you are addressing this matter to look for his or her specific help? What can your significant other do to support you as you deal with this? Will your partner be concerned about whether your condition is contagious, is all in your head, or will limit your ability to enjoy your normal activities as a couple (both sexual and non-sexual)? What if this is too much for your significant other to process right away? Run through as many scenarios as you can think of and plan your responses accordingly. Seek advice or suggestions from a confidant or counselor, if you’d like;

4. Decide if it would be worth providing your partner with a medical brochure or a link to a reliable online health resource. If so, ask your doctor for a good pamphlet or search for a website with useful information about your condition;

5. Once you have processed your feelings and are prepared to have the conversation, pick a time to broach the topic when you won’t feel rushed. Don’t bring the subject up when you and your partner are in bed or naked. You don’t want to add pressure or the expectation of sex to an already stressful situation;

6. When you get into the conversation, be honest and gentile in your tone. Using your own words and style, say something like:

There’s a personal issue that I’ve wanted to talk to you about. Since we’re dating/married/in a serious relationship, I feel like it’s important for you to know that I’ve been struggling with something physically/emotionally. I have [fill in the blank].

I appreciate if this might be a lot for you to process. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have now or later, and I wrote down a website you might want to check out. I realize that you can’t fix or change this, but I just wanted to let you know because [fill in the blank with what’s applicable to you. Will you need your partner’s support or help in any way, or are you just telling him or her to be honest?].

7. Let your partner’s facial expressions and body language be the guide for how often you pause and how much detail you go into about your health condition in this first conversation. If he or she looks confused, sad or uncomfortable, it’s okay to say:

I know that I just threw a lot of information at you. We don’t need to talk about this all now. Just know I’m here if you have any questions and how thankful I am to have you in my life.

8. If your significant other does appear open to discussing your medical issue in greater detail, I advise highlighting certain points without overwhelming your partner with information. Try to focus on the basics about the condition itself, what medical help you’re received, and what specific role you see your significant other playing.

Physical and emotional health problems are a natural part of a life. There’s no need for you to feel embarrassed or ashamed about a medical condition. Talking about health issues with your partner may seem daunting, but in the majority of cases, it’s important for both you and your significant other to do so. We all deserve support from our loved ones in good times and in bad.

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