Erectile dysfunction (AKA impotence) is a frustrating and embarrassing problem for anyone to have to deal with. You are probably well aware that erectile dysfunction (ED) can wreak havoc on a man’s self-esteem. Sexual functioning can sometimes feel like the very definition of manliness (certainly in our sexually inundated culture).
But it’s also hard for the partner of the person suffering from erectile problems. You may feel guilty. You may feel confused. You may feel helpless. These are totally understandable reactions to a difficult situation. Let’s look at how you can be supportive to your partner and also get some clarity for yourself. Here’s what we’ll expand on below:
- Take yourself out of it
- Get Informed
- Ask Him What You Can Do
- Talk About It
- Encourage Him to Seek Professional Help
- Engage in No-Pressure Physical Contact
- Try Sex Anyway, and Have a Backup Plan
- Don’t Give Up
Take yourself out of it
Before you can productively engage your partner in any way around this very sensitive issue, you have to get clarity for yourself that this is not your fault. Erectile dysfunction doesn’t happen because you are no longer attractive, because you have gained weight, because you’re older now, or for any other reason related to your sexual attractiveness. ED is a medical issue that needs to be treated as such.
This is not to say that it’s impossible for a man to no longer be attracted to his partner and not be interested in sex. But that is not really dysfunction. If your partner doesn’t want to have sex with you, there are many things that might be going on there – and ED could actually be a cause of that, meaning that if he finds himself unable to perform, he may withdraw from trying. But if he is interested in sex with you and cannot pull it off, that is erectile dysfunction and that is not happening because you put on 20 pounds since you first got together.
Blaming yourself for the problem will help nobody, and trying to control the situation by putting on makeup, getting plastic surgery, agreeing to perform acts in the bedroom that you don’t really feel comfortable with, or any other maneuvers that make you out to be the problem are doomed to fail.
Note that if you try such an approach, you may very well find that the problem seems to improve. This is almost certainly a short-term gain. A boob job or an opportunity to act out a long-held sexual fantasy are quite possibly enough to generate enough novelty-based excitement to get the machinery going again, but the novelty will inevitably wear off, as novelty always does, and the machinery will go back to its underfunctioning state.
An important lesson taught in Al-Anon and other support groups for partners of addicts is the maxim that “you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” This point holds equally true in the arena we are discussing here.
Please do yourself and your partner a favor and convince yourself that this is not about you. Only then will you be able to offer the support he really needs, because although you cannot unilaterally fix the problem, your support will go a long way towards helping him resolve it.
Reading up on erectile dysfunction can help you come to terms with the fact that this is not about you. It can also help you feel a little less powerless despite that fact. Knowledge is power, as they say. Any problem is scarier when you don’t know what you’re facing. Knowing what ED is and what it isn’t will help you manage your own concerns about it, and it will help you help him more effectively.
This doesn’t mean you should be pushing him to read this or that website or to speak to this or that person. But if and when he is ready for problem-solving, you will feel much more confident in your ability to be a part of that process if you have clear and rational understandings about the issue rather than emotional biases and conjectures.
Get some objective information and stop letting your fears and worries run wild on you.
Ask Him What You Can Do
As with most interpersonal issues, the best way to find out what someone else wants from you is often to ask them. You may not get a straight answer – either because this is so difficult for him to talk about, or because he simply doesn’t know himself what he needs from you. But you lose nothing by asking (in the right way), and you may well obtain some useful guidance.
Caution: asking and pestering aren’t the same. You won’t lose out by asking from time to time how you might be able to help. Pressuring him for an answer – “Why won’t you tell me?” “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do? You’re sure?” – will only make things worse.
Be patient in trying to get answers. Put the question out there with no expectations – e.g., “Is there anything you can think of that I could do to be supportive to you in this situation?” – and if the answer is no, accept it and move on for now. Showing respect for his emotional space is itself a form of emotional support.
Talk About It
Obviously, this one also depends on your partner’s wishes. Pressuring him to talk about it against his will is a good way to exacerbate the problem. But that doesn’t mean you can’t knock on the door from time to time (unless he has explicitly asked you not to).
Let him know that this is your problem together. Don’t judge him, tell him what to do, or pressure him about it, and be sure to additionally make it clear to him that you don’t intend to do those things. The goal here is simply to make this something that the two of you can talk about without adding to the painfulness of the situation. A burden that’s shared is much easier to carry.
If you are able to discuss the sexual problem you two are having, it will be less isolating for the both of you, and it will actually help build and fortify the relationship rather than be a drag on it. People who go through difficult experiences together bond in a way that can’t be achieved by sharing only good times.
Another good way to open the door to this conversation is to share your own feelings about the problem, without demanding he do the same. Let him know, for example, that you feel sad that your sexual relationship has dwindled, and that you’re sad for him too that (you assume) it is something he misses as well. Make it clear that you are not angry at or disappointed in him – you don’t want to add to his guilt and shame; you just want to share your own pain with him because you love him and he is the one you turn to for support. (This is modeling the way you want him to turn to you as well; that will hopefully make an impact, but again, do not expect or demand it.)
Even if he is reticent at first, it is worth gently bringing up from time to time to see if he is willing to listen and perhaps to talk. If he directly asks you not to do so, however, it is wise to respect his wishes. It will be difficult to convince him that you care about him and the relationship if you don’t demonstrate such respect. (That said, if the ED becomes an ongoing and undiscussed issue in the relationship, it might be a good idea to suggest seeing a couples counselor who can help you talk about it. Otherwise, at best it will remain a weight on the relationship and at worst it may cause the relationship’s total collapse. See the following point.)
Encourage Him to Seek Professional Help
In many cases, erectile dysfunction can be a purely physiological issue that can be resolved with medical intervention such as testosterone therapy or physical therapy, or even basic lifestyle improvement such as smoking cessation or weight loss. Supporting your partner in making a visit to his doctor can be helpful: many men are reluctant to see a doctor for any ailment at all, considering it a sign of weakness or unmanliness, let alone one that has to do with their penis. And the idea of talking about their penis to a near-stranger isn’t a real draw either. (Some men do have a close relationship with their GP and can bring up problems like this, but my unresearched gut feeling is that most do not.) Ask him without judgment or pressure if he would be willing to seek medical consultation.
Another useful consideration would be a mental health therapist. In many cases there is no physiological basis at all for the erectile dysfunction and it is entirely a mental issue. The possible explanations are many, ranging from stress at work to an identity crisis to sexual hangups to past trauma. Do not try to diagnose or psychoanalyze him yourself. Leave that to a professional (and if you are one, leave it to another professional). You are this man’s partner, not his shrink!
Therapy might also be helpful not just to explore the possible causes of the problem but to address the shame and frustration your partner likely feels. Nothing cuts to the core of a man’s sense of self as man like sexual dysfunction.
Couples therapy is another potentially helpful avenue. An individual therapist can help locate what the problem is if it is intrapersonal; a couples therapist might be helpful in determining whether relationship factors are at play – for example, poor relationship skills can lead to a situation in which there is a major emotional disconnect between the two of you, and this can certainly affect sexual performance, as can any other forms of relationship stress.
(Please, however, recall point #1 – this is not your fault. In any partnership, both of you are contributors to the quality of the relationship. The exception to this is if you are an abusive partner, in which case you can singlehandedly destroy your relationship and your partner as well; if this is the case, trying to address your partner’s erectile dysfunction is a losing proposition until you get your own house in order.)
Be understanding of the significant reluctance you may encounter. Men in our culture are generally not supposed to need or seek help, and certainly not to go to therapy. Respond not with pressure, explanations, or counterpoints to his arguments but with empathy. Try to understand how hard it is for him to even consider going to a professional, and convey that empathy to him. (Just feeling it isn’t enough for him to know it!) You will get far more mileage for your relationship out of empathy + no doctor/therapist than you will out of his going to speak to a professional under duress from you.
Engage in No-Pressure Physical Contact
There are many ways in which the two of you can enjoy each other physically that do not involve an erection. Ask for and offer back rubs, foot rubs, snuggles, etc. and make it clear that you are interested in some physical comfort without it needing to be sexual. Often the pressure and expectation that physical touch will lead to sex can be a further impediment to erectile functioning.
Additionally, you can discuss whether you would like for him to provide you with some sexual fulfillment even if he is not in a position to receive any himself. Part of the emasculation of erectile dysfunction is the inability to sexually please one’s partner, which of course is a major indicator of masculinity in our society. But you don’t have to give up on this part of the relationship entirely; there are many other ways he can offer you sexual satisfaction that can help him feel sexually successful in part even if intercourse is not in the cards right now.
Try Sex Anyway, and Have a Backup Plan
If your partner’s sexual functioning is impaired but not entirely gone, run with what you’ve got and make the best of it. Avoiding sex because it may not happen or may not reach the finish line only makes the problem worse and compounds the shame and isolation.
Make a plan beforehand in which you both acknowledge and accept that sex might not work out. Decide what you will do if he cannot get an erection – will you go for a one-way activity instead, in which he is providing sexual satisfaction to you? Or change gears entirely and go watch a movie? What if you’re able to start having sex but he loses his erection in the middle? Talk about how to roll with that possibility and switch to plan B as seamlessly as possible and with the least possible fanfare.
You don’t have to decide exactly what you will do in every possible situation, but it’s important to have an idea of how you will handle it if things go south. Even more important is for the both of you to agree that you will hit up plan B without judgment and without distress. Don’t let disappointment rule the night; move on to whatever activity you’ve decided to move on to with detachment, even joy. Don’t make a big deal about it. Just smoothly switch gears and keep enjoying each other’s company. Taking the pressure off performance can go a long way towards resolving the problem.
Don’t Give Up
Be patient. Of course you would like to fix this problem and get rid of it. The reality is that life’s significant problems are almost never solved overnight. Hollywood has convinced us that challenges begin and end in the span of 1.5 to 2 hours, but as with most of what they feed us, this bears little resemblance to real life.
Solutions take time. Change happens slowly. Your partner may not be willing to talk about his erectile issue today, but he might be in a month from now. He may refuse to see a doctor or a therapist for now, but eventually warm up to the idea. This is all the more likely if you successfully avoid burdening him with shame, pressure, expectations and negativity.
Don’t give up hope. Keep expressing empathy and support, keep finding ways to connect, to be physical and even sexual, and watch for small change over a longer period than you wanted. Erectile dysfunction is a real challenge for a relationship, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent or fatal one.