Erectile dysfunction and marriage

Is your relationship at risk thanks to erectile dysfunction (ED)? Whether you’ve been together for years or you are just getting to know one another, ED can put a huge strain on any couple.

If your erection doesn’t play ball it can be deeply devastating for a man, but it can be equally difficult for his partner too. ED sufferers often find it embarrassing to talk about sexual dysfunction and this can create distance in a relationship. But a floundering member doesn’t have to ruin your chances of achieving emotional and physical intimacy.

We speak to Denise Knowles, a Relate councillor and sex therapist, about how to address ED and overcome this obstacle together:

What is erectile dysfunction?

ED, sometimes known as impotence, means an inability to get a good enough erection to achieve satisfactory intercourse. Most men fail to get or keep an erection every once in a while, some men suffer from occasional ED and for some it can be persistent.

Erection problems can affect men of all ages and occurs for a variety of reasons, both physical and psychological, including anxiety, stress, hormonal imbalance, substance abuse, medication side-effects, surgery and depression.

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Erectile dysfunction and your relationship

While it can be frustrating and embarrassing if you struggle to maintain an erection, try not to lose hope. More often than not ED is an emotional issue, and worrying about it tends to make things worse. ED can be impacted by both physical and psychological factors, but treatment is available and it does not have to spell the end of emotional or sexual intimacy with a partner.

Try the following 7 tips to safeguard your relationship from ED and come back stronger:

1.Find out the cause of erectile dysfunction

The more you know about ED, the easier it will be to prevent it from sabotaging your relationship. The first thing that you should do is to visit your GP and find out what is causing the ED, so you can then address the problem. If you have a medical condition, you will need to discuss it with your doctor.

‘Once you’ve got a diagnosis sorted out then you can actually find out what you’re dealing with so you have a better idea of how to manage the issue within your relationship,’ says Knowles.

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2. Don’t take erectile dysfunction personally

A lot of women will mistakenly assume their partner has either lost interest or is having an affair. When in actual fact, men who suffer with ED often become very anxious about letting their partners down, so they then withdraw from sex.

‘It’s not that they have gone off their partner, it’s just that they are embarrassed or they don’t want to let their partner down so they don’t indulge in sex, it’s usually nothing to do with an affair or otherwise,’ says Knowles.

3. Keep communication lines open

ED can often cause trouble in a relationship, not because of the lack of sex but because of the lack of communication, so it’s important that you keep talking. ‘If ED doesn’t get talked about, it can have quite a detrimental effect on the man’s confidence and how he sees himself,’ explains Knowles.

‘It may cause him to withdraw from intimacy in a relationship and that in itself can go on to cause problems because the couple won’t be as close,’ she adds. ‘When communication goes out the window, then obviously they think to themselves that there’s more of a problem than there actually is.’

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4. Approach the subject of erectile dysfunction with care

Keep in mind that ED isn’t anyone’s fault. If your partner suffers from ED, don’t put pressure on them and be as supportive as possible.

‘If you notice your partner is struggling or sex isn’t happening as often as it used to, then try saying, “I notice we aren’t making love as often as we used to and I am a bit concerned about that. How about you? I miss closeness,” and see what he has to say,’ recommends Knowles.

5. Extend your sexual repertoire beyond penetration

There are numerous ways that you can achieve orgasm and give each other pleasure, which don’t involve a strong erection or penetrative sex.

‘Maintain your closeness and intimacy. Obviously communication is a really big thing here but don’t forget the importance of being able to just stroke and touch each other,’ suggests Knowles.

‘Extend your sexual repertoire,’ she adds. ‘This is about exploring each other’s bodies and exploring what works. If you’re anxious about your performance, you have got to start to relax and enjoy other parts of your body as well. If the whole focus is on the penis then naturally this isn’t going to be conducive to you getting an erection.’

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6. Talk to your GP about erectile dysfunction

Talk to your partner first, and suggest that your partner comes along to the GP with you if this helps.

‘It’s important that if you’re a man and have concerns about your erection, you need to get it checked out because there could be a medical problem – such as diabetes,’ says Knowles. ‘If that’s not the case, then you have got that reassurance.’

If ED is because of an emotional issue, therapy can be very successful in helping to combat anxiety, get back in touch with your body and re-learn how to maintain an erection without the associated anxiety.

7. Consider couples counselling

Contact an organisation such as Relate, where sex therapists are on hand who are trained and skilled to deal with ED. Relate therapists understand the dynamics in a relationship and will actually be able to help the couple manage it.

‘There may be other things that contribute to the erectile deficiency at a psychological level, such as someone’s been made redundant, has recently been bereaved or has financial problems,’ says Knowles. ‘So it’s about exploring the things that they can do something about.’

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Further help and support

For further advice about erectile dysfunction or any other relationship or sexual concerns you might have, try one of the following resources:

  • NHS.UK: to check for any medical issues or be referred to a therapist.
  • Relate or Relationships Scotland: for relationship support.
  • COSRT: find therapists that are able to work with any relationship or sexual issues.
  • Sexual Advice Association: help to improve sexual health and wellbeing.
  • IPM: education, training and research in psychosexual medicine.

Last updated: 09-12-19

Dr Roger Henderson Dr Roger Henderson is a Senior GP, national medical columnist and UK medical director for LIVA Healthcare He appears regularly on television and radio and has written multiple books.

“Some people are able to masturbate with a relatively soft penis and still achieve orgasm, but it may well not be good enough for penetration. It also depends on what kind of sex you’re having, because if it’s oral sex it’s very different to vaginal sex, which is again different to anal sex, so it is very much the individual case,” he says.

ED can be caused by a number of issues including hormonal imbalance, a restriction in the flow of blood to the penis and psychological causes such as anxiety and depression.

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The impact of erection problems in a relationship

“Men can often feel quite frustrated about not being able to achieve an erection and it can be very demasculinising – the fact that they may see this as a symbol of their fertility and manliness and they’re not able to achieve it on demand,” says Patel.

“There are also external pressures like pornography or people writing about having better sex for longer in the media. Often the reality is that if you’re stressed, have had a busy day, have eaten late and the kids are screaming and then you try to have sex, it’s just not going to happen.”

Female partners can worry that they’re not attractive enough or that their husband is having an affair and can’t get an erection because he is having sex elsewhere, explains Patel. But this is unlikely to be the cause.

“And sometimes a woman may be concerned that her partner is addicted to porn – which can be an issue and can occasionally be the case where you can’t get an erection in real life.”

However, again, there are other more likely explanations. You can find out more about the psychological and physical causes of erection problems in our leaflet.

Talking with your partner about erectile problems

Of course, erection problems can be a difficult issue for couples to discuss – but talking openly can often be the best way of resolving stress and identifying underlying causes. Talking about what’s going on is a much better approach than pretending erectile problems aren’t happening or just avoiding sex without giving a reason.

“I think the best thing to do is communicate openly – and recognise that your relationship and sex life aren’t always going to be perfect and being relaxed about that. Ideally, you’ll have a healthy relationship that allows you to talk,” says Patel.

“Realise that this isn’t going to be forever and perhaps examine your lifestyle together, which is such a big factor for erectile problems.”

He suggests talking about whether there are things in your life that you can change – this could be eating better, stopping smoking, exercising more or reducing stress levels. Or, perhaps you need to just find time for each other, where you’re not focused on kids, pets or work.

Change the way you think about sex

There are plenty of ways that you can be intimate together without having to have a strong erection. Focus on creating closeness rather than on penetration.

Patel says: “There’s lots of sex you can have that doesn’t involve penetration and you can achieve orgasm without penetrating. So, think about sex more broadly. Increase your sexual script and have sex in slightly different ways. Having sex in different rooms, for example, can be enough or having sex in the morning rather than the evening when your testosterone is higher can also help.”

When should you get help?

“If you have persisting difficulty with erections or you have had issues for longer than two to three months, get checked out by your GP,” explains Patel.

They will be able to provide you with a health check, as ED can be a sign of underlying health conditions (such as heart disease), and also suggest a wide range of treatments.

If erection problems continue to be a barrier in your relationship, it may be worth speaking to a psychosexual therapist who can help identify where the difficulties lie.

Worried about erectile dysfunction?

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In Bed With Gigi Engle: I Think My Boyfriend Has Erectile Dysfunction

Instead of being raised to discuss their feelings or insecurities, men are too often taught to “be a man” and “toughen up.” So instead of being receptive to your questions, he shut you out and left. The only way to overcome this hurdle is to sit him down and have an open discussion. Tell him how much you like him, and explain that you are just trying to understand what is going on. This is about finding solutions; not harping on problems.

What your boyfriend really needs is a medical professional. There are ways to get around ED; but first he has to figure out if it’s a physical or emotional blockage he’s dealing with, and address it from there. You being as supportive as possible will only help.

If he wants nothing to do with any of this, then this guy is not ready for a girlfriend. You should never sign up to be in a relationship with an insecure person who’s unwilling to address glaring issues in the relationship.

Obviously, there are plenty of ways to derive pleasure from sexual experiences that don’t involve P in the V. But they all tend to feel a little unsatisfactory when the P is off the table entirely, don’t they? If you’re having a sexual experience with your boyfriend, but he’s not getting off in any way, it can feel a little jarring.

You are only two months in, and this is already a pretty glaring issue. Are you willing to be in a long-term relationship with someone who doesn’t get hard? Two months in, you should be tearing each other’s clothes off; not already going through sexual distress. This wasn’t a problem that developed over time: It’s been THE problem from the very beginning… eight weeks ago. It’s a pretty huge issue to be dealing with so early on.

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We saw a marriage counselor and she suggested that having intercourse isn’t the only way to be intimate with your partner. That was a game-changer for us. Now that we focus a lot more on foreplay, there’s less pressure on Keith to “get the deed done.” Plus, it’s led us to explore a variety of new techniques and even toys. It’s honestly a lot more exciting than the usual “in and out” routine we’d gotten so used to early in our relationship.

MORE: 11 Sex Toys That Will Bust You Out Of A Dry Spell

To others struggling with their man having ED, I would say encourage him to seek medical help. At the same time it’s important to be sensitive. No one likes to feel like they aren’t virile, and having to admit that to the person you’re sleeping with, even if she’s your closest confidant, can be terrifying.

These days, Keith and I are more connected than ever and planning our next trip to Europe. I am thankful that with the help of a pill—and a little patience on both our parts—we’ll hopefully continue to enjoy that hot hotel sex that brought us together in the first place!

*All names have been changed

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