How to deal when your partner is struggling with erectile dysfunction
If your partner has trouble getting (or staying) hard, you’re not alone — and definitely not at fault. Erectile dysfunction (ED) is super common, affecting 1 in 4 men under 40.* Unfortunately, because of the stigma and shame associated with sexual performance issues, ED is often under-diagnosed and untreated. Talking about sex with your partner is always important, but communication is especially key when it comes to issues like erectile dysfunction. Here’s how you can support your partner with ED and continue to have a satisfying sex life.
*Btw, all people with penises can experience erectile dysfunction, but most studies on erectile dysfunction focus on cis men.
Know what you’re dealing with
Understanding how ED happens is the first step for both partners. Erectile dysfunction is the inability to achieve or maintain an erection firm enough for sex. Erections are all about blood flow. In fact, it takes around six times the normal amount of blood flow to supply a penis with the blood it needs for an erection. When a person with a penis becomes aroused, their brain sends messages to the blood vessels in the penis, causing them to dilate and allow blood to flow in. As pressure builds, this blood becomes trapped in the penis, keeping it erect. If there is insufficient blood flow or if blood fails to stay inside the penis, this can lead to erectile dysfunction.
Difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection up to 20% of the time is considered normal for most people with penises and is often referred to as situational or short-term erectile dysfunction. Situational ED can often be attributed to stress, fatigue, or drugs and alcohol.
Erectile dysfunction is not just a problem for middle-aged people, and although it’s common, it’s not a normal part of getting older. But knowing how prevalent it is can help you and your partner normalize the issue.
Erectile dysfunction can happen for many different reasons
Erectile dysfunction can be attributed to physical and psychological causes, with many cases stemming from both. The most common physical causes of ED are poor circulation, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. Erectile dysfunction can also be caused by certain medical conditions, medications, or a hormone imbalance. Lifestyle choices can also be risk factors, such as drug, alcohol, or tobacco use, unhealthy diet, inactivity, or a high BMI.
Because arousal begins in the brain, psychological causes of ED are incredibly common. One of the most prevalent is sexual performance anxiety, which is a form of anxiety that results in feelings of nervousness before or during sex. Sexual performance anxiety can occur for a variety of reasons, from concerns about sexual performance or body image issues to stress about non-sexual aspects of life.
Understanding the cycle of erectile dysfunction
Stress and anxiety are actually closely related when it comes to erectile dysfunction. In many cases, stress is the underlying factor, but it causes anxiety. That anxiety then triggers more stress, creating a vicious cycle. Remember how erections are all about blood flow? Stress stimulates the production of hormones like adrenaline, which cause blood vessels to constrict. This diverts blood flow from the penis to the heart and lungs, and leads to higher blood pressure, making it more difficult to develop and keep an erection.
In many ways, ED is a self-fulfilling prophecy. One instance of ED can create anxiety about future sexual interactions. That anxiety can become severe enough to affect the ability to perform, and in turn, increase anxiety for the next interaction. Before long, someone can become so worried that they won’t be able to perform that it starts to become true.
How to talk to your partner about erectile dysfunction (without hurting their feelings)
Many people with ED don’t want to talk about it because they feel ashamed or embarrassed. For many people, sexual performance is a big part of identity, and issues in that area can be a blow to their self esteem. They might deny it or try to cover it up because they don’t want to face it. So the first step is acknowledging that this might be difficult or awkward for them to talk about, but that it’s important for both of you in order to have a satisfying sexual relationship.
Erectile dysfunction can be a delicate topic for some people, so it’s especially important to be open and supportive when talking to your partner about it. While it’s very common for ED to bring up feelings of insecurity or doubt, don’t take it personally. This is about them, not you.
Instead, take it in stride. Suggest that you two can do other sexual activities or take a break —whatever they’d like in that moment. Some people might need to pause and talk, while others might prefer to continue having sex in different ways. It can help to ask your partner to explain what happens when they experience ED so that you can understand why they might be struggling. You can also ask them what they’d like if it happens again — what would make them feel supported and comfortable? You can offer some perspective and remind them that ED is a common medical condition that can be treated. Most importantly, let your partner know that this hasn’t changed how you feel about them.
Letting your partner know that they can talk to you about ED can actually help relieve some of the stress and anxiety that’s contributing to it in the first place.
How to have (great) sex without an erection
Erectile dysfunction can be frustrating if you let it limit how you have sex. But erections are not the only means of sexual satisfaction! Focus on other ways of giving and receiving pleasure, whether that involves dry humping, solo or mutual masturbation, manual sex, oral sex, sex toys...you name it. This will allow you to get creative and take the pressure off your partner. They might feel like they’ve failed at satisfying you — show them that there are so many other ways to do that!
There are many solutions for erectile dysfunction
Your partner should talk to their healthcare provider to determine the cause of their erectile dysfunction. If their ED is rooted in a physical health problem, treating that condition will be the first step. Psychological causes of ED can be treated with therapy or counseling and other non-medical treatments, while physical causes can be treated with pelvic floor exercises, medication, injections, suppositories, medical devices, or in rare cases, surgery. Telemedicine companies like Hims and Roman offer ED medications in hip, discreet packaging to help ease the stigma or embarrassment.
In both physical and psychological cases, lifestyle changes can often take care of underlying factors contributing to erectile dysfunction. Improving diet and exercise habits, getting more sleep, staying hydrated, and limiting tobacco and alcohol use are all great ways to address the most common sources of erectile dysfunction. Offering to take on these lifestyle changes with your partner can be a great way to not only show support, but to improve your own sexual health as well!