My boyfriend and I have been together for a couple of years. It’s been going really great and we’ve been talking about moving in together. A couple of months ago, he got an HIV diagnosis. We’ve been having safe sex, and I just went on PrEP, which he wanted me to do, so that’s not the problem. Here’s the problem: Since his diagnosis, the best way I can describe him is “health nut.” He’s on a strict sleep schedule. His diet is so healthy it’s impossible. He gets up early every morning to work out, even when we are spending the weekend together. His kitchen counter is lined up with bottles of supplements. I try to talk to him about his regimen, and he just tells me not to worry about him or, worse yet, that I couldn’t possibly understand. He also doesn’t want to spend time with our friends lately. Don’t judge me, okay? I know his health needs to be priority. But I feel like he’s got this new life that he won’t share with me. It’s like he’s going steady with a new boyfriend named HIV. I want to support him, and not discourage him, but I feel like he’s shutting me out. Help!
I often talk to clients about the importance of taking responsibility for their health. But I also understand that as the HIV-negative partner, you feel sidelined. This is one of the challenges of being in a serodiscordant relationship.
Here are some ideas to get the communication back on track: Think before you react. Nobody likes to feel abandoned. Nobody likes to be accused of abandoning someone they love. Sure, you’ve got lots of strong feelings right now, and it’s hard not to let them out. But before you do, take a step back and get some perspective on the situation.
Consider your boyfriend’s position. I don’t want to preach at you. But let me just say that when you are living with HIV, being at your best for yourself, and the people you live with, means staying on top of your treatment regimen and everything that goes along with it. And having a partner living with a chronic condition like HIV means being in a supportive role where his HIV regimen is concerned. But I know you have needs too. Bottom line: your boyfriend’s got his training wheels on. He’s figuring out how to live with a new HIV diagnosis and so are you. In that way, you share the diagnosis.
Ask yourself some questions. Get specific. Here’s what I ask serodiscordant couples: What do you need most from your partner and where do you feel like your partner doesn’t understand what you need? This is a question for both of you to consider. And a question just for you: What do you miss the most when your partner is focused on his/her regimen and self-care and how could you get more of what you need? Here are a few responses you might both have in common: Making plans to have fun. Getting together with friends. Sharing the workload. But let’s be honest about what else you need: How about being made to feel special once in awhile?
Suggest having a talk. I know it can be hard to sit down and have a conversation about needs and expectations. These conversations can veer into dangerous territory, and nobody wants to walk into a conflict, especially when you, or your partner, may be experience some raw feelings. But also keep in mind that talking about your relationship can make it stronger. And then make that your goal.
Avoid accusations. Use I-statements. Give examples. How’s that for simple? Start on a positive note: “I really care about you. And I know you are dealing with a lot.” That’s a good way to not make your partner feel defensive. Follow this with: “I want to be your teammate in this. I want to support you in taking good care of yourself. I want to understand your treatment regimen.” Follow this by affirming what you would like to have more of in your relationship. “I would really like it if we spend more time just being a couple, and getting together with friends.” Lay out the specifics with each other. What your boyfriend needs from you, and what you need from him. No elephants in the room, okay?
Most of all, be patient. Learning to live with HIV is an ongoing process. Adjusting to the drug regimen. Making healthy lifestyle changes. Coping with the emotions that come up, as well as issues like disclosure. All of this requires lots of patience. With your boyfriend, with yourself. If you can keep the line of communication open, without accusations, without defensiveness, you will be that much more able to avoid hurt feelings and resentment. Back to the training wheels. While life may feel out of balance right now, the two of you will find your new normal as your boyfriend gains his footing on the road ahead.
You and your partner. Remind each other each and every day who number one is. And then back up your words with action.
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website, www.JustGotDiagnosed.com.