Stephan Lasher, 34, found love on a Florida highway. It was the summerof 1998, and he was hitchhiking in Sarasota, when rock-climbinginstructor Giovanni Altare, now 47, pulled over. “Giovanni and I hadflirted before,” says Stephan. “But that was just bar talk. When he sawme that day, he took me back to his place.”  But on the drive toGiovanni’s home, Stephan froze. How could he disclose that he was HIVpositive? Expecting the boot, he took a deep breath. Then, just as theypulled into the driveway, he blurted it out. “I didn’t expect him tostill want me,” Stephan says, “but he was OK with it. I never wenthome.”

At first, Stephan couldn’t shake his disbelief. “The wayGiovanni loved me scared me,” he remembers. “I didn’t think I deservedit. I especially didn’t believe I deserved someone who was negative.”But after seven years together, he’s convinced.

For some couplesin which at least one partner is HIV positive, that heady first blushof attraction can prove wrenching. But disclosing your status is rarelythe last drama. Along with the usual relationship angst, HIV can bringits own baggage—extra fears, struggles with illness—no matter howachingly awesome your love may be. Here’s how to lose that baggage—andfloat off into the sunset.  

you love ME ?
StephanLasher’s negative self-image is an HIV staple. According to NancyBeckerman, DSW, a couples counselor who wrote the book Couples of MixedHIV Status—Clinical Issues and Interventions, people living with thevirus sometimes “tend to emotionally withdraw out of fear they don’tdeserve love.”

Meet Bryan Fleury, 39, who tested positive forHIV ten months before his 1992 wedding—then watched the marriage fallapart in just two years. “We were afraid to have sex the whole time,”he says. “I knew if I was to try again, it would have to be withsomeone who was HIV positive. I couldn’t live with myself if there wasa chance of infecting someone else.”

After his divorce, Bryanset his sights on finding the perfect positive woman. But every time heliked someone, he stumbled on his own low self-esteem.

When hemet Millie Malave, in New York in 2003, they connected rightaway—sharing not just a diagnosis but a demoralizing history. ExplainsMillie, 47, “My first marriage ended partly because my husband couldn’tdeal with his HIV or mine. After he left, my biggest fear was thatnobody would ever love me again.” Now both Bryan and Millie are finallyready to try anew.

Escape valve
“Eachpartner needs a place to go to talk about feelings,” says Dr.Beckerman—a maxim that rings doubly true if you’re struggling with afear of death.

Consider Steve Balfour, 51, and Ron Rosa, 40.They met in 1997—a year after Ron nearly died in a hospice, saved by anearly protease inhibitor. The couple first laid eyes on each otherwhile volunteering at Atlanta’s AIDS Walk. “Ron walked up to thesign-up table, and that’s where it all began,” recalls Steve, who isalso positive. Within three months, they were living together. ExplainsRon, “I think we both felt that living with the virus, you can’t waitforever.”

Ron has been in and out of the hospital during hisyears with Steve. Last year, weak and bedridden, he began talking aboutselling his car. “I didn’t want to hear it,” Steve says. “He wastelling me that he wasn’t going to be around much longer.”
Betweenhealth problems and AIDS activism, the two rarely get a break from HIV.“We live in a state of heightened awareness of both,” says Ron. “Anormal couple will sit down and make a retirement plan. We make a dailyplan—we have our bitchy little ritual of taking our meds every morning.”

SteveTibbetts, who counsels couples in Minneapolis, warns seroconcordant(poz/poz) partners to beware of stress:  “There’s this constantreminder that both people have HIV, especially when you’re on thecocktail. Every time you take your pills, you say, ‘We have HIV.’”

Instead,he suggests, “Call them vitamins. Then you can say, ‘We’re taking theseto stay healthy.’ Or try something else to make the ritual morepleasant!”
And like it or not, he says, “A couple needs to talkfrankly about death—and both need to come to grips with their fears andemotions about it.”

Bedside manners
There’sa difference, however, between having to integrate your health issuesand fears into a relationship—and having to nurse your partner throughan HIV crisis. Louis Farmer, 39, married Derick Brown, 41, last year inan African-style ceremony in Cleveland. They’ve settled into afour-bedroom home and plan to adopt a child. “We’re perfect together,”Louis jokes, “He was raised Catholic; I was raised Baptist. He’s dark;I’m light. I’m positive; he’s negative.”
Derick happily helps managethe details of Louis’ HIV treatment. “I’m  always reminding him ofdoctor’s appointments, making sure he gets there.” As a professionalinsurance biller, Derick helps with hubby’s health plan hassles too.And Louis loves the attention. “When I get sick, he makes me soup andtea,” he says. “It’s the ultimate form of making love.”

Theyhave their moments, though. “Keeping up the support for him can beoverwhelming,” Derick admits. And Louis can never quite explain thingsenough. “My biggest fear in the beginning was: Could Derick totallyunderstand someone who’s positive?”

Michael Mancilla,co-author of Love in the Time of HIV—A Gay Man’s Guide to Sex, Dating,and Relationships, says, “HIV positive individuals sometimes findthemselves doing reverse caretaking—having to do the explaining, theeducating, the reassuring. Disclosure is just the first part of this.To have to do this with your partner can be draining.”

StephanLasher knows the dynamic well: “Sometimes I get resentful because thereare things that are hard to explain to Giovanni—the depression, thefear that comes with HIV.” And while Ron Rosa admits he’s “the mostdifficult patient in the world” and has nothing but gratitude for hispartner’s bedside care, he recalls, “There was a moment where we bothbroke down crying, and I told him, ‘I don’t want a superman, I want alover.’”  

Great, say our counselors, who are alwaysgoosing their clients to speak up for themselves. “Don’t be the angelicperson with AIDS suffering silently and courageously and inspiringeveryone around them,” says Christopher Murray, who advises couples atthe LGBT Community Center in New York. “Don’t be the strong, silentpartner with no complaints.”

Negative thinking
Strong,silent nurses aren’t recommended, either. Susan Cornutt, 44, and hernegative husband, Drew, 42, live in the Bible Belt, where “you have tobe careful who you tell,” she says. But conservative neighbors hadnothing to do with Drew’s stress over Susan’s repeatedhospitalizations. “I have a hard time talking about my feelings,” heexplains.

In 2003, after a week at Susan’s hospital bedsidestruggling to get her doctors to give her the meds he felt she needed,Drew broke down. “I got thrown out of a hockey game for starting afight,” he recalls. “I just lost it, started screaming at people.” Theincident helped push him into a support group.

Indeed, sayscounselor Tibbetts, “An emotional support system is sometimes moreimportant for the negative partner.” Mancilla suggests that “thenegative partner needs not only to find support—but also know about HIVand what’s going on with their partner.”

In health and in sickness
Sowhat’s the secret to a happy relationship when one or both have HIV? Itturns out the language of love is about the same for all couples: Beflexible, be reliable—and don’t let the virus become an excuse not tohave fun together. Susan and Drew, for instance, are both serioushockey fans and have grown closer volunteering to fight Georgia ADAPfunding cuts.

A big bonus, all agree, is having someone who isinvolved enough to understand HIV. “The main thing is, he’s there forme,” says Susan about Drew. “When I’m the sickest and the most scared,I can share my deepest fears with him.”   

 Thenthere are the relationships that HIV has deepened. Ron explains,“Living with this disease and with Steve has brought me a lot of visionand understanding. Before this relationship, I didn’t know what lovewas.”

Bryan Fleury & Millie Malave
Seek and you shall find

Bryan and Millie conquered self-doubt—by getting out there and taking chances. Now they’re united by, well, positive thinking.

InFebruary 2003, they met at a Valentine’s Day dance at the Center forPositive Connections in New York. As Bryan recalls it, “She was sittingalong the wall, watching the dancers. And the only open chair in thewhole place was next to her. It was like something drew me there.” Theystarted talking and that was it. “He got me laughing so hard, Icouldn’t believe it,” says Millie. “I said, who is this guy?”

Neitherfit the other’s search criteria. Millie counts off the differences:“He’s Irish-American; I’m Puerto Rican. He lives in Springfield; I livein New York. He’s seven years younger than me, too.”

But thetwo couldn’t be happier. “Sure I’m lucky,” says Bryan, “but it’s alsobecause I worked at it. I really put myself out there–for years. We’reliving proof that true love exists, even with HIV. But it’s not goingto come knocking at your door.”      

Louis Farmer & Derick Brown 
I love you; now take your meds

LouisFarmer was at death’s door in 1997, diagnosed with full-blown AIDS andbilateral pneumonia. He says his mother’s prayers and, later, medsbrought him back from the brink.

In 2003, Louis met his dreamman—the tall, dark Derick Brown—through a personal ad They were married last summer (wearing these Africanrobes) in a ceremony attended by both their families and about 100guests. They’re very close and discuss everything—including the statusof Louis’ health.

So far so good, but Derick takes issue withLouis’ decision to go off meds in 2003. “I just think it’s better tostay with the treatment,” he says. Louis shoots back, “My blood testsare good—I feel healthy!”

Louis says his husband’s worrying issometimes too much. “When I’m not feeling well, he says it’s becauseI’m not on the meds. Then we have the discussion all over again.”

Sohow do they work it out? With a little chat after each of Louis’doctor’s visits—and one key ground rule: “In the end, I make the finaldecisions,” says Louis. Derick concedes, “It’s his body, and I have torespect that.”