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What “Protecting Yourself” In A Long-Term Relationship Really Means

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In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about the best way to protect yourself in long-term relationships.

Q: What’s the best way to protect yourself in long-term relationships?

Protecting yourself in any relationship can mean all kinds of things: keeping yourself safe from STIs, pregnancy, heartbreak. It could, depending on the person and context, mean any one or all three of these things. That's not what you usually want to be thinking about when it comes to relationships, but it doesn't hurt to engage in a little bit of worst-case-scenario syndrome sometimes, as long as you don't harp on it too long. So let's address all three ways you might want to protect yourself in a long-term relationship — and then leave it be.

Protecting Yourself From STIs

The best way to protect yourself from STIs in long-term relationships is to continue using condoms. If your primary long-term relationship is open, then you definitely should be talking about barrier methods with your partner(s). And if you’re monogamous but don’t think your partner is being faithful, or just want to be extra-sure, then you can insist on using them.

Another way to protect against STIs in a long-term relationship is to get tested regularly, whether you’re monogamous or not. Most STIs are curable and all are treatable, so catching something early is the second best move (after regular condom use) you can make to protect yourself. If you’re able to talk to your partner about this, maybe even suggest getting tested together as a fun date. (Pair it with dinner or something afterward, to reward you both for getting it done.)

You might have guessed the third way to protect yourself from STIs in a long-term relationship: Talking to your partner or partners. Establishing clear boundaries — whether that’s always using condoms, getting tested regularly, or only not using condoms with each other, or whatever you agree on — is really important when it comes to STI protection. Open lines of communication and trust are excellent barrier methods when used properly.

Protecting Yourself From Pregnancy

These days, health care professionals are recommending IUDs as the go-to, absolute best form of long-acting reversible birth control. There are two kinds: hormonal and copper. The hormonal ones come in different brand names with slightly different hormones included, all of which affect ovulation and cervical mucus. Copper IUDs create an “inhospitable environment” in your uterus and thicken cervical mucus. (Thicker cervical mucus makes it harder for sperm to get through to the uterus.)

Of course, neither IUD provides protection against STIs. (And if IUDs aren't your thing, there are other great forms of birth control to talk to your doc about.) So even if you have one, you still should have that conversation about boundaries, or continue to use condoms and get tested regularly.

Protecting Yourself From Heartbreak

Which brings us to the hardest part: heartbreak. And this one, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t have such an easy answer. One of the realities about choosing to be intimate with someone or even fall in love is that you’re opening yourself up to potential hurt. That’s the price we pay for the beauty that is love. And while it’s scary to get into something knowing that your heart could be broken at some point, isn’t it worth it?

Practically, though, the key to protecting yourself against heartbreak (at least of the major kind) is communication. Talk! Listen! Be prepared to get a little bit hurt! All good things in life come with risk, including sex and love. We can never completely eliminate those risks, but we can take steps to protect ourselves. And, anyway, wouldn’t it all be kind of boring if it was risk-free? I certainly think so.

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