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When Opposites Attract

Scientifically referred to as HIV serodiscordant couples, the relationship where one partner is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative can actually work. And while it remains challenging, it can be just as satisfying.

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HIV-Negative and -Positive Relationships

When Christian H.C., 43, came back to the Philippines from a tour of duty in Europe, he brought with him an AIDS test kit so he and his boyfriend (then of less than six months) Jeremy A.C., 28, can be tested in the privacy of their home. While it was supposed to be just a “routine checking up of our status,” he recalls now, the unexpected (as least in Christian H.C.’s case) happened – Jeremy A.C. tested positive. An HIV antibody test with a clinic following the self-test proved the result – Jeremy A.C. is positive.

Going against expectations, however, Christian H.C., who tested negative, chose to stay with his boyfriend, something Jeremy A.C. says was more than sweet (“He told me my status doesn’t change the way he feels for me,” he says), it was “life-changing. Here’s one who loves me, really loves me, even at my worst.”

“Let’s just say opposites attract,” Christian H.C. kids. And if their relationship, while still relatively young, is to be a basis, such attraction can work, too, so that “everyone can be happy.”

NEGATIVE+POSITIVE=…

Scientifically referred to as HIV serodiscordant couples, the relationships where one partner is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative can actually work. “Ten years ago, HIV seemed like a death sentence to many gay men. Now, more and more men with HIV are living healthy, and relatively normal lives. Living longer and healthier means more opportunity for relationships. And compared with years past, the distinction between positive and negative doesn’t seem so great to many men nowadays,” says John Ballew, M.S., American licensed professional counselor who publishes bodymindsoul.org. However, “too many couples still don’t have role models for healthy male-male relationships. For mixed-HIV status couples? Fewer models still, unless you count the tragedies and melodramas that seem as out-of-date as Love Story.”

And this is where the challenges lie.

Arguably remaining as the major hindrance to good living of people with HIV and/or AIDS (PWHAs) are the wrong perceptions about HIV and AIDS – difficult, as it is, for PWHAs not in relationships, but even more so for those in relationships. There’s the fear that the seropositive will infect his partner, so that, if not the negative partner himself, his friends and relatives may not be supportive of the relationship since he would be deemed putting himself in danger. Related to this is, of course, the fear of friends and relatives of the positive boyfriend that, with his seropositive status, he will de abandoned by someone he loves.

“Since social support is important in most relationships, couples need to find ways to deal with this head-on by being frank with (each other, and with) family and friends: they expect support and encouragement, not judgment or attitude,” Ballews says.

Aside from infection, there’s the worry about how the status will affect the practices, especially sexually, of the partners – something Christian H.C. says is a “misplaced concern,” especially with the presence of safer sex practices, e.g. the use of condoms, dental dams, et cetera. “We do what we’ve been doing before when we were still establishing the relationship – no change at all,” he says. “And, by the way, I’m still HIV negative.”

There’s the worry of the illness, when AIDS sets in, too, bringing with it the uncertainty of the future. “I worry where this leads, of course,” Christian H.C. admits, expressing his fear of “growing old alone, when I want to do that with (him).” He knows, of course, that the new combination antiviral therapies “prolong the life span of many living with HIV, so maybe my fears are largely misplaced (in these times).”

According to Robert H. Remien, interviewed by José-María Medellín for Mixed HIV Status Couples in the Body Positive Magazine (thebody.com), “the biggest change is in the domain of care-taking issues, and also future outlook. But since there have been significant improvements in medical treatment for HIV, fewer people are dealing with illness progression and ‘death and dying’ issues. So, generally, both members of the couple are more optimistic now and there is less of a focus on care-taking issues.”

This isn’t to say that HIV is not a serious concern anymore; just that everything need not revolve around it.

The biggest impact is in day-to-day living, Christian H.C. says. “We have to introduce changes in both of our lifestyles – go to sleep early, especially on weekdays; cut on smoking; lessen alcoholic intake (Jeremy A.C. stopped drinking altogether); frequent visits to (our doctor); et cetera. Things like that.”

Not that he’s complaining. “We’re just living healthier,” he adds.

THE GOOD OF IT

Ballews believes that, “in fact, HIV can have a positive impact in relationships if it causes people to maintain a focus on what is most important in life. HIV can push partners to live in the present moment – not because there is no future, but because the future may be uncertain. That’s true for all people, but living with HIV can underscore that ambiguity,” he says.

The important thing is not to “avoid talking of emotionally charged issues,” says Remien. “Do not avoid talking about the issues and all of your feelings with each other, no matter how sensitive or difficult that may feel. Consider seeking professional, supportive counseling, whenever you feel it may be helpful, individually and/or as a couple. Keep things in perspective. While HIV status is a significant difference between the two of you that requires some attention, it does not define who you are. It is just one of many characteristics that describe who you are, as individuals and as a couple. As in all loving relationships, find ways to take care of each other, treat each other well, be sensitive to each other’s needs, and have fun.”

Jeremy A.C. once thought he should have just broken up with Christian H.C. “Maybe it would be easier for everyone involved,” he says, “that’s what I thought.” But things like this, “falling in love and all that, never happen as planned; they just happen. And it’s much, much more rewarding (giving in to) loving than not to.”

“Am I worried? Not really, actually,” Christian H.C. says. “But I am well-informed, so I’ll be alright; we’ll be alright.”

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