QUAERITUR: Should I divorce my spouse to protect him from my long dormant, unknown herpes?

From a reader:

I have been married for 12+ years faithfully. To the best of my knowledge my husband has also been faithful. He says as much and I believe him. Recently I was diagnosed with genital herpes. As you may imagine we were both shocked and mystified.

I can only conclude that this is the result of some sin on my part prior to marriage and that the virus was dormant in my body all this time. However, assuming that blood tests come back negative for my husband, how do we go on as husband and wife? My understanding is that love does not harm the beloved. There is no way for us to be intimate without some risk of harm coming to him. For me the experience was very physically painful and I don’t want him to suffer infection.

Also, in the event of my death, I would not want him burdened with the consequences of my premarital sin. Medical protocol is to abstain during outbreaks and to use condoms at all other times. As Catholics we feel that we would not be able to use condoms, but even if we could, it would only mitigate risk of transmission, which is not acceptable to me.

This may sound like an over-reaction, but I can’t help but feel that the only solution is for him to divorce me and seek an annulment. He had a right to know about my status before we married. And to be honest, had I known that I was positive for herpes, I would not have discerned marriage for myself. My very sweet and loving husband bears me no ill will, no suspicion, does not wish a divorce, and assures me cheerfully that “we’ll have herpes together”. I am blessed more richly than I deserve. Still I don’t know morally what I can do in good conscience.

Father, any clarity you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
Please pray for me, this has been a horrible trauma, like satan has reached out from the past to permanently foul me body and soul. I am trying to cope for the sake of my husband and children, but I don’t know how I will ever feel normal again. I pray for you also. God Bless.

I am so sorry that you have to go through this.  However, from what you write you seem to be deepening your relationship with God and your husband in spite of your anxiety for him.  God permits trials to test and strengthen us in our love for Him and each other.  The sacrament of matrimony can give you actual graces in this hard time.  Stay close to the confessional and Holy Communion.

I don’t think you have a case for a “null marriage”.  Had you known about the herpes before your marriage and had you hidden the knowledge from your husband, that deception could perhaps have been a ground of nullity.  On the other hand his reaction to the news of the your diagnosis suggests that knowing about your condition might not have had an impact on his consent.  It sounds as if he loves you with true spousal love, the sacrificial love which Christ model on the Cross.  This is the kind of love which always seeks the good of the other.  His response, “we’ll have herpes together” sounds, if crudely worded, a true expression of spousal love.

This is easy for me to say, don’t be too hard on yourself.  I doubt the herpes is “divine punishment” or satanic interference. It is a disease.  It was, we grant, contracted in the course of sinful activity.   Since you have confessed the sin, you need not dwell too much the guilt of that past sin.  It was forgiven.

There is no sin we little mortals can commit that is so bad that God will not forgive us if we ask for forgiveness.  Our past mistakes and sins can be grist that grinds off the hard edges of our pride.  Good can come from evil.  Think of the loving support – outwardly and willingly expressed – you have from your husband.  How many women have that sort of man?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. RichR says:

    Your husband’s attitude is inspiring. He values your marriage more than his (possible) discomfort.

    I would say that, since the disease is not life-threatening or severely morbid, the greater good is the marriage and the children. You are truly blessed to have a husband who is willing to shoulder this burden with you, so I would not have any pangs of guilt in staying married. He did vow to love you and honor you in sickness and in health.

    As far as future children, studies show that one in four women have genital herpes (most are unaware). Very few children of women with genital herpes get the disease from the mom. There are minor risks, but your doctors could easily advise you on the best way to avoid this should you find yourself expecting another baby.

  2. Joshua08 says:

    FWIW, even in the case of venereal diseases that are life threatening, this does not preclude conjugal relations. The traditional teaching (e.g. in Jone, or Tanqueray) is that when conjugal relations present a remote danger of death, such as venereal diseases can, the non-infected spouse is no longer bound to the marital debt, but can still choose to engage in relations to preserve familial unity and out of charity for his spouse (lest the spouse, say, be tempted to incontinence). By remote is meant not immediate, as might be the case were the spouse recovering from heart surgery and such physical activity might cause cardiac arrest.

  3. Ralph says:

    As a man happily living the vocation of marriage I feel qualified to comment on this issue.

    You are, rightly, upset, concerned and scared. You are ashamed of your sin. All of these feelings are understandable. However, none of this changes the nature of your marriage. You two are one and called to be together until the end of life. Although lifes trials are hard, they can not disolve the holy bond between you.
    I ask you this simple question. If the shoe was on the other foot, how would you want your husband to act? Would you allow him to contemplate “nulling” your marriage? I suspect not.
    Allow your husband the joy of supporting his wife in a difficult time. Allow yourself to be emotionally carried by him. It’s what marriage is about.

  4. Shepherdess says:

    Although rare, the email sender should consider that there are other, albeit lesser, modes of transmission and infection. Searching the online medical literature will bring up such cases, some documented, some that are suspected but of course harder to prove:

    —Auto-inoculation: An infected individual can spread the virus to other parts of his or her body by touching an area shedding virus and then touching, scratching, or rubbing another susceptible part of the body. Towels are especially conducive to this.
    — Oral herpes can be transmitted to the genitals, and vice versa. Symptoms are similar.
    —The virus may be transmitted to the … the mouth, and more rarely, the esophagus, the trachea, and even onto broken areas of skin anywhere on the body.

    The usual mode of infection, does not mean, it was the actual mode of infection of the original poster. It is the one assumed by the majority of doctors… Feel free to seek second and third, fourth, etc. opinions from doctors on the best solutions for you and your husband. We have learned to seek, verify and re-verify information from doctors from hard experience.

    I am blessed with a husband who has stood with me through different health issues and I have felt guilty being so ill and burdening him. But my husband steps up and beyond, steadfastly loves and cares for me and lives his vows every day. To me there is no greater marvel in the world to behold than a devout Catholic man and husband.

    Please let your husband to love and care for you as well. God may have sent you this man as your husband to stand by you and help you, allow him to do so… Your family will be in our prayers.

  5. Margaret says:

    She’s found a true prince of a man in her husband. When he said, “In sickness and in health,” he really meant it. What an inspiration. Prayers for you both.

  6. Hmm. Since we’re all just kinda talking here, I’ll also say, nothing in this fact pattern screams “Good annulment case” to me. The Church presumes the validity of this wedding (and assuming your husband in baptized, presumes sacramentality too), and so should you two. There’s a lot of grace at work in this marriage. Draw on it, don’t question it.

  7. DavidJ says:

    Short answer: no.
    Long answer: nooooooooooooooooooooooooo.
    Sounds like he is a stand-up guy, willing to live out his vows and it sounds like you really care for him as well. Cherish the love you share, and know that God will see you through this together.

  8. tecumseh says:

    Brilliant post . . .well said . . and humble . . .equally great reply Father . . .it’s posts like this that give hope to all of us struggling with life’s difficulties . . .well done . . .and very moving

  9. Samthe44 says:

    May God Bless you, your husband, and your family.

  10. anna 6 says:

    Good husband, good wife, good priest.
    Bless you all.

  11. Sometimes it’s easier to give gifts than accept them. This is the kind of gift you have to accept graciously.

    There’s a chance you might make your husband sick if you stay together, but a surety that you will break his heart if you make him go.

  12. Ecclesiae Filius says:

    Please be assured of my prayers. May the holy family strengthen your family, and all of ours well.

  13. Andrew says:

    Another thing my dear, is that you can also ask for the grace of healing. But if this is a cross Jesus is asking you to carry, then your marvelous husband will give you the strength to endure whatever trials lie ahead. Remember on your wedding day he made a promise to take you for better or worse, in sickness, and in health. It seems that he means what he said on that beautiful day. The love you appear to have for each other seem so precious, how can you cause your communion to rupture? God loves you both so much, He will be there for you both during the difficult moments ahead. In the meantime, I pray that you will be healed of this through the intercession of Our Blessed Mother, the Health of the Sick, or that the symptoms of genital herpes will be kept to a minimum, resigning this all to God’s will. If all read this post could join in this prayer, as well. Fr Z, I thought you gave some terrific advice here.

  14. And this is why we have blood work done when we get engaged, people. Prayers and best wishes for the couple…

  15. Former Altar Boy says:

    You can enjoy conjugal relations despite the herpes. My late, great wife had genital herpes, of which she informed before we were married. (Yes, I married her anyway!) We enjoyed normal sexual relations until she was stricken with cancer. The trick is to tell your husband at the first hint of an outbreak and the two of you abstain from relations until convinced there is no outbreak or until it has healed. Granted, there is always a risk he may get it anyway but life is full of risks.

  16. elaurier says:

    Shepherdess brings up a great point. I can tell you as a nurse that I have known of patients who infected others via medical staff. Probably poor handwashing technique or a patient with an undetected active lesion being roomed with a previously uninfected patient. This stuff happens. Great reasons for private rooms in hospitals and early discharge when appropriate. The writer seems convinced she sinned her way into this twelve years ago. There are so many bugs out there nowdays, I’m surprised most of us are as healthy as we are.
    Also, remember that her spouse may never become infected. How is it that one member of a family can be plagued by recurrent cold sores and no one else in the family gets them?

  17. Kaneohe says:

    Good grief – haven’t any of you heard of false positives and mixed up or mislabeled lab reports!!!???
    Get tested again and make certain your physician sends the sample to a different lab or best yet two labs.

    And everyone, PLEASE – do not ever accept a lab report without questioning it and requesting a second, and yes, even at times at third test. Don’t ever be afraid to go to another doctor – some offices are are rife with screwed up handling of samples – ditto for the labs

    You and your husband are in my prayers.

  18. Annie says:

    Kaneohe, Shepherdess and elaurier are absolutely right.
    Prayers for the OP and hubby.

  19. … I’m no doctor but I’m pretty sure herpes is treatable. This isn’t something that would be life threatening. There can be complications with the bearing of children but I would think competent medical persons would be able to educate and assist a couple to manage the condition through their lives.

  20. Mary Pat says:

    A good priest friend of mine has a ritual that he goes through with engaged couples during Pre-Cana. He asks them to write down all the “for better” scenarios they can think of that can happen in a marriage and then he asks them to write down all the “for worse” scenarios that can happen in a marriage. Then, he tells them that when they get married, they VOW to stay with their spouse through every single one of these scenarios and any others that may occur. He tells them that if they cannot do that, they must not get married. It sounds like this dear husband knows what a marriage vow is. God bless him and her!

  21. Fr Deacon Daniel says:

    I am deeply touched by this couple’s story. My only thought beyond what has been shared is to encourage this couple to always take things one day at a time and discover all sorts of new, wonderful, nonsexual ways to express their love for one another. Personal intimacy can and should always be cultivated outside of the marriage bed and the marital act. This cross will most certainly be for their glory if they bear it well, and it sounds like they are working towards that! But again, one day at a time…

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