Gay relationships come in all varieties and combinations…that’s what makes our community so diverse and eclectic! One such couple pairing has been coined “magnetic relationships,” which is defined as an HIV-positive and an HIV-negative man in a committed partnership together. Perhaps it stems from fear, ignorance, or other socio-political factors, but surprisingly very little has been written on this subject.
One of the most important components of any single gay man’s dating plan is a clear vision of the type of partner and relationship he seeks. Knowledge of his negotiable and non-negotiable needs is then used to form a template that he refers to when screening potential dating partners.
Such criteria might include looks, professional status, age, race, certain emotional characteristics, etc. When meeting new men, singles intent on searching for Mr. Right will then take special note of the potential goodness-of-fit that exists with his relational vision and values with every dating encounter to avoid investing energy (and their hearts) into mismatched connections.
One such criteria that every man must contemplate are his feelings about whether to date within or outside his particular HIV status. They must decide how important or not it is to them in the scheme of their visions for a long-term relationship. In response to a recent poll on my website’s “Question of the Month” voting poll regarding whether gay men would date others opposite of their own HIV status, 34% replied “yes” and 66% said “no.”
For any couple, regardless of sexual orientation or health status, relationship sustenance requires time, energy, and devotion and it’s not always easy. Men in positive/negative relationships go through all the trials and tribulations as anyone else: conflicts over money, sex, household management, quality time, etc. However, there are some additional challenges that they must face as a result of their mixed-status situation; these unique hurdles are just that…challenges that can be overcome with effective communication, negotiation, and the motivation and drive to work together as a team to make the best of difficult problems and preserver.
Possible Concerns & Pitfalls:
- John is HIV+ and he is afraid of infecting his HIV- partner Mark; as such, his anxiety leads to sexual dysfunctions that interfere with their intimate life. Additionally, side effects of his medications compromise his sexual desire at times leading to discrepant sexual drives between the couple and mounting frustrations for both partners. Sometimes Mark worries about possible transmission of the virus during their lovemaking and feels inhibited sexually.
- Steve suffers from low self-esteem and body image issues resulting from his AIDS status. He’s lost a lot of weight, struggles with chronic skin problems, and his body composition has changed from the medication he’s taking. He doesn’t feel attractive and thinks he’s lost his “sexiness.” He feels plagued by feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and blame about his health status and these emotional issues sometimes get played out in his relationship with Bob in the form of frequent arguments or distance. Knowing that Steve struggles with his diagnosis, Bob at times feels a sense of “survivor guilt” that he’s negative.
- Adam and Frank struggle with deciding when, if, and how to disclose to their families about their mixed statuses.
- Craig finds himself withholding information about his feelings about his HIV+ status with Byron and some of the symptoms he experiences at times because he doesn’t want their relationship to be dominated by the disease and is afraid of being a “drag.” He wants to buffer Byron from the negative impact of what he’s going through.
- Because Pete has been asymptomatic since the beginning of their relationship four years ago, he and Chris have become more lax with their safer sex practices.
- Because Jermaine’s health fluctuates, social opportunities that he and Devon could partake in are sometimes thwarted and their eating schedules and activities must often times become regimented around Jermaine’s medication treatments.
- Martin and Ed have become overwhelmed lately by the rising HIV medical costs and are starting to take a hit financially. They’ve also found themselves facing discrimination in hospital settings and Ed was prohibited from visiting Martin during a recent hospitalisation because he wasn’t considered a family member.
- After Louis got sick recently, Greg began to recognise the possible realities of living with HIV/AIDS that he hadn’t really considered before. He has begun to question issues of mortality and fears growing old alone if Louis’ health ever took a turn for the worse someday. He has fleeting thoughts of whether he can handle the pressures of this relationship and worries about the future.
These are just a small handful of all the different types of scenarios and challenges that positive/negative relationships, and the partners within them, can experience. With minimal visible role models of this relationship type in the gay community, these challenges can seem overwhelming and couples can feel somewhat isolated with their unique issues. But these potential problems are not insurmountable and successful management of the difficulties can actually heighten a couple’s connection and intimacy and skyrocket their relationship satisfaction.
There are no easy answers or cookbook-recipe solutions to the above situations; each couple must creatively and collaboratively find the formulas that work best for them in coping with the unique demands of sharing an HIV/AIDS-discordant relationship. Here are some tips that might help make navigating through these transitions smoother:
- Communication is of the utmost importance. Each partner should feel free to openly share and discuss any and all thoughts and feelings about their experiences and perspectives and to be acknowledged and validated. Keeping thoughts and feelings concealed, even if it’s done with the intention of trying to protect your partner, will only serve to backfire later and have severe consequences individually and for the relationship. It might be very helpful for each partner to seek individual counselling for support and skills in dealing with the unique HIV+ or HIV- perspectives and also pursue couples counselling for assistance with relationship enrichment and communication/conflict management skills training.
- While your sexual relationship may experience its ebbs and flows, recognise that this is normal of any partnership and that it’s important to communicate your needs, feelings, and fantasies regularly. Creatively explore different ways to make your bedroom adventures more interesting and look at nonsexual methods of play as another source of pleasure. Some couples have discussed having an “open relationship” as an option of dealing with bedroom difficulties and this can be a viable approach if both partners are agreeable, if it doesn’t oppose either partner’s values, and that specific boundaries and limits are placed on it so as to protect the relationship. Safer sex with your partner and others, of course, is the only way to reduce the risk of transmission of the HIV virus no matter how “healthy” sex partners may be (and this is still not a guarantee).
- Approach the ups and downs as a team and it’s best if both are actively involved in the healthcare planning and management process. C