Telling a romantic or sexual partner that you have HIV is really hard. Many women wonder when to do it, what to say, and how to do it safely.

Here are some ideas to get you thinking based on our guide on disclosing to romantic and sexual partners.

Benefits and challenges

Many women describe the peace of mind that can come with disclosure. They feel more freedom from fear and stress. They can talk honestly about their health. Very close relationships involve sharing, vulnerability, and listening. Disclosure can lead to more open discussions and stronger intimacy. It also opens the way to talking about each partner’s health and future plans.

Some women fear what may happen after disclosure. They have worries about being rejected or losing their children, money, and housing. Some women worry about emotional or physical abuse. Women who are part of small communities or migrant populations may worry about word getting out among their networks.

HIV disclosure and the law

You must tell partners that you have HIV before having sex, according to Canadian law. This legal obligation applies to all sexual relationships.

In Canada, people living with HIV can be charged with a serious criminal offence for not telling partners about their HIV-positive status before having sex. If found guilty, they can go to jail, even if they did not transmit HIV to anyone.

The only time you are not legally required to disclose before sex is when you meet two conditions at the same time: you use condoms AND your viral load is below 1,500 copies/mL.

The law is complicated and confusing, so take some time to read about it or give Positive Women’s Network a call. You can also get a plain-language brochure about it from us.

Preparing to disclose

Preparation can make the disclosure process easier and increase your confidence. Here are some questions to think about:

  • Where can you get emotional support before, during, and after disclosure? This might be a friend, family member, or support worker at an HIV organization. Have someone you can check in with.
  • How can you test the situation beforehand? You might want to mention HIV and see what your partner knows and how your partner reacts. For example, you can say that you watched a TV show featuring people living with HIV, and maybe mention that there are long-term relationships where one person has HIV and the other person does not. Your partner’s reaction can help you decide whether it would be helpful or safe to disclose, and give you a chance to think about whether to continue the relationship.
  • What will you say? You can write out or practise your “disclosure” speech beforehand. You may find it helpful to have up-to-date information on HIV, treatment, and prevention. Also think about what kind of questions you’re willing to answer.
  • Where will you disclose? Think about a place that will be safe for you. It could be a public location such as a park, or it could be at home. Also think about whether you want complete privacy or if you’d like to disclose in front of a doctor or support worker from an HIV organization, or if you’d like a friend or family member close by so you can call on them.
  • When will you disclose? Try to choose a quiet time that allows for discussion. Pick a time when you won’t be influenced by sex, drugs, or alcohol, which can affect how you make decisions.
  • Do you want proof of disclosure? Because of the law on HIV disclosure, sometimes women want proof that they told a partner. Some ways to do this are to ask a trusted person to be a witness, disclose in front of your doctor, get your partner to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that you disclosed, or follow up the conversation with an email.
  • What kind of HIV information will you provide? Your partner might want information on transmission or what life could be like for you. It’s a good idea to have a brochure that you can give to your partner to take away. Your partner can also get information from a worker at an HIV organization, a reliable website such as www.catie.ca, or your doctor (with your permission).

Safety planning

It’s normal to have worries about disclosure. Even if you haven’t experienced abuse from a partner, having a safety plan is a good idea. Support workers at an HIV organization or anti-violence centre can help you. Here are some questions to consider when planning to disclose:

  • Who can be with you when you tell? Who can check in with you before, during, and after disclosure?
  • If you have children, is there someone you trust that you can leave them with? Do you think a safety plan for your children would be helpful?
  • Where is a safe place to disclose? Which room is safest and can be exited most easily?
  • How will you get away if you need to? What doors, windows, elevators, or stairways will you use?
  • Where will you go if the disclosure doesn’t go well? To a friend’s or family member’s home, a transition house, or somewhere else?
  • Where will you keep your medications, wallet, money, phone, and keys in case you need to leave quickly?
  • Where can you leave an overnight bag to pick up if you need it?

Know that HIV is never an excuse for threats or violence. You deserve to live with dignity. If your partner tries to make you feel bad about having HIV, know that there are support workers you can talk to.

After disclosure

Have someone you can call and who will check in with you after you disclose. This may be a support worker, a friend, or a family member.

Disclosure is a process, and you and your family will need time to adjust. When you tell your children that you have HIV, they may feel sad or scared at first. But as they learn more, those feelings can change for the better.  Let your children know that it is okay for them to keep sharing their thoughts and feelings with you and to keep asking questions.

Selfcare is important too. It can reduce stress, help you balance your life, and strengthen your health and overall well-being. Some ideas include doing physical activity, treating yourself, and engaging in spiritual practices. Remember to take time for yourself.