How to Help a Partner With Erectile Problems
Erectile dysfunction. Two words that are enough to make most men shudder. The inability to get and remain hard is, at best, an awkward experience and, at worst, a devastating one.
About 30 million men in the United States experience erectile dysfunction (ED), according to data from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. For such a common problem, people certainly have a difficult time talking about it as a normal occurrence.
"We are the strangest culture and country, I feel, in the sense that sex is in our faces constantly, but we're told, 'You're not supposed to have [sex] because negative things can happen if you do,'" said Kansas City, Missouri–based sex therapist Erin Donnelly, Psy.D. "Then, all of a sudden, you're expected to be amazing at it without any practice. There is no other activity we're expected to not practice and be amazing at."
Imagine someone who has never held a baseball bat being thrown a 90-mile-an-hour fastball by a major league pitcher. We wouldn't expect them to make contact with the ball, let alone hit a home run. That kind of skill takes years to develop. Yet with sex, we are expected—or we expect ourselves—at 18 years old (the average age when someone loses their virginity) to have a masterful understanding of sexual intimacy. This is especially troublesome for young men who believe, whether through stories they've heard or from watching porn, they don't last long enough in bed.
"It is not normal for men to achieve an erection and have it for hours of sexual performance," Donnelly said. "The average time from arousal to ejaculation is two to five minutes, not 20 minutes, ready to go at the drop of a hat anytime people want it. They come to think that because their sexuality isn't where they want it to be, it also says something about their identity as a man."
Human perceptions of masculinity, though, aren't biologically ingrained. They've been built up over thousands of years, influenced by shifting cultures and popular media. It's important to draw a distinction between our perception of sex and its reality.
Partners aren't the problem
A man's partner may adhere to the same unrealistic beliefs he does, driven by images they see and stories they hear.
"Sometimes, by the time I'm working with them, men have had a lot of experience with the partners they've been with while experiencing normal fluctuations in sexual function due to fatigue or emotional distress or even environmental distress," Donnelly said. "So [their partner] starts to internalize it and think, 'I'm not attractive enough' or 'I'm not good enough.' So there's this added pressure or even a layer of shame from the partner."
Donnelly urged partners to communicate openly about these situations and be mindful that in most cases, the issue is not with either partner but rather with a combination of external and internal factors that might inhibit sexual arousal. More than that, sex isn't even close to being limited to penetrative intercourse.
'Sometimes sex and intimacy are about the pleasure you can give to another person rather than the pleasure you receive.'
Partners shouldn't shame or blame each other for a lack of sexual appetite, and it would also benefit them to keep the other person in mind. In other words, sometimes sex and intimacy are about the pleasure you can give to another person rather than the pleasure you receive.
Laurie Watson, Ph.D., LMFT, a North Carolina–based sex therapist certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), outlined how these factors often play out in relationships.
"Perhaps initially, the man feels humiliated at what he perceives is his failure to perform; he gets out of bed without a word," she said. "His partner, perhaps still aroused, feels rejected at a vulnerable moment. She may believe he isn't attracted to her and doesn't want her. They don't talk about it. Over time, the misunderstanding deepens."
Watson said anxiety is the primary psychological cause of erectile dysfunction. In a cruel irony, once ED happens, a man worries about it and by his very worrying makes it likely to happen again.
Handling erectile issues firsthand
A moment of erectile ill-functioning is a situation in which many sexual partners find themselves, and Pittsburgh local Reagan (not her real name) had an experience that highlights the proper way of handling a man's episode of ED.
"When it happened, the first thing I did was ask if there was anything I could do to help, or if he would just feel more comfortable not having sex," she said. "He explained to me that he was just really tired and stressed out with work and assured me that it wasn't anything to do with me."
Rather than blaming or shaming, Reagan and her partner had a discussion and assured each other that this isolated experience wasn't a reflection of their relationship or feelings toward each other.
"He offered to go down on me, but I told him there was absolutely no pressure," she continued. "I didn't want him to feel obligated to do anything to me out of guilt. We didn't have sex that night, and it was perfectly fine."
Even in long-term relationships, an individual is entitled to bodily autonomy; they don't owe sex to anyone. If fatigue, stress or health issues are impairing sexual function, it's OK to simply not have sex for a while. Or if all parties involved still want to share a pleasurable experience, many alternative methods of connecting intimately don't require an erection.
Find pleasure even with ED
Ultimately, sex is about connection and pleasure. It should be fun and feel good. Erectile issues can complicate that process, sure, but they don't completely remove the possibility for intimacy. People involved in sexual relationships shouldn't put pressure on their partners to perform a certain way or make them feel ashamed of their body's natural tendencies.
"Anything that people can do to say, 'Hey, let's just exist in this moment together, continue doing things that feel great and just see where it goes,' helps them focus on the process of engagement rather than just the end result of an orgasm," Donnelly said.
We often get caught up in the notion that sex has to be performative or interstellar each time we engage in it, but for many people in healthy relationships, sex is the deepest, most intimate form of emotional expression. Thankfully, those emotions can be shown in a vast repertoire of ways, not just penetrative intercourse. Erectile issues are far from fun, but they don't need to negate the idea of sex altogether.
The best thing partners can do is talk. Be honest with each other. Don't reserve intimacy exclusively for the bedroom. Locking it away the rest of the time might keep it at bay when you want it most.