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Your relationship might be impacted by Roe v. Wade’s overturn. Here’s how to talk about it

What they both wanted for their lives, what their boundaries were with contraception and what they would do if faced with an unintended pregnancy were all things the 21-year-old started talking about early and continues discussing with her partner.

For many couples, those conversations are taking on a bigger importance, given the US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and the federal protection to abortion access that came with it. Some people may feel that talking about sex, protection and unplanned pregnancy is more important now than ever, said Kristen Mark, a sex and relationships researcher and professor in family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Health in Minneapolis.
“People need to understand that in many states their options may be limited practically overnight or, if not overnight, then within weeks or months,” said Debby Herbenick, director of Indiana University Bloomington’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion. She is also a professor at IU’s School of Public Health.

Depending on the state, the loss or potential loss of access to abortion may have some people rethinking what they need in a partner and under what circumstances they are comfortable having sex, said Julia Bennett, director of digital education and learning strategy for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Fortunately, the teens and young adults Chicago-based therapist John Duffy works with are already more comfortable than the generations before them talking about sexual health and protection. Whether or not they are already in a sexual relationship, many of them are talking with partners, friends, groups and communities about both the politics and logistics of safe sex, he said.

In the wake of the decision and some state laws against abortion that have already gone into effect, experts are urging people to have direct conversations early on about what it means for a couple in any kind of intimate relationship.

Why we need them

A generation ago, when a person found out they were unintentionally pregnant, the question that followed was “what is she going to do?” said therapist Duffy. Today, more than ever, it’s becoming, “what are we going to do?” he said.

While the conversation can feel taboo or scary, knowing what your partner’s concerns and requirements are in the event of an unintended pregnancy is important to ensure you are supporting one another in creating a safe environment for you both, he said.

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“Ideally, we’re prepared as opposed to reacting,” Duffy said. “If you’re in a state where this is enacted and you might not have a lot of financial resources or the ability to get out of state, the best move is to have that discussion beforehand.”

Overturning Roe v. Wade may be adding stress and anxiety for some people that makes it difficult to have a safe, healthy and pleasurable sex life, Bennett said.

Having these conversations can help those people decide if they feel comfortable moving forward sexually or if the partnership is not worth the risk of pregnancy, Duffy said.

“A super common issue that arises within relationships, casual or long-term, is lack of communication,” Mark said in an email. “Approaching conversations about sex can be really difficult due to the stigma our society places on sex and the lack of guidance provided through our incredibly limited access to medically accurate and comprehensive sex education. But it is totally necessary.”

How to have them

Whether couples are thinking about having sex or already are and have a casual or intimate relationship, Duffy recommended having conversations about contraception and abortion — and having them early.

“When it comes to communication, being honest and direct about your boundaries and your feelings is a really good place to start off,” Bennett said.

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You can talk about how the decision is affecting your mental health and how it might affect your decision-making around sex, she added.

One way in could be to start by talking about what your access to reproductive health care looks like together, Marks said.

“Have a plan for if an unintended pregnancy does happen. Talk about where you would go or what you would do,” she said.

That plan can include cost, travel and time off work if you were to choose to seek an abortion, Herbenick said.

It’s a good opportunity to feel out a partner, Duffy said. Many people value similar belief systems in a way similar to how they view physical attractiveness or intelligence. You may not know exactly how you would react if you were to find yourself with an unintended pregnancy, but broaching the subject can help get a sense of whether you and your partner are on the same page, he said.

What if there is a deal breaker?

Having vastly different opinions and values around abortion may be a deal breaker for a romantic or sexual relationship, no matter which side of the issue you are on.

“I work with kids who are very attracted to somebody but because of that one issue, it’s like nope, I’m not going to engage in that relationship,” Duffy said.

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But the conversation doesn’t have to end there.

The discussion of pregnancy, contraception and abortion is increasingly part of the discussion around consent, Duffy said.

“If there isn’t enthusiastic consent, it shouldn’t happen,” Bennett said.

Partners who have differing outlooks can work to tease out exactly where each person’s needs and boundaries are and look for a common ground where both people can feel safe and enthusiastic, she added.

That might mean a longer conversation about protection or talking about different types of sex that don’t result in pregnancy, Herbenick said.

If you can come to a common ground, know that as policies, laws or circumstances change, what you are comfortable with can change, too.

“One of the key tenants of consent is that it is reversible and that people can change their minds,” Bennett said. “It’s still important to maintain a consensus and a respect for people’s boundaries.”

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