It’s common for anyone to have occasions when it’s difficult to get sexually aroused, or maintain arousal, while getting intimate but it can come with feelings of shame, disappointment and guilt for both parties. If your partner experiences erectile dysfunction, providing support, understanding and open communication will be helpful for you both. If these problems are persistent, it could be a sign of an issue that needs investigating.

Erectile dysfunction is unlikely to be permanent. It can be successfully treated in many cases, using tablets, injections or surgery. The more you know about the condition and how best to work together with your partner, the better the outcome will be.

What is erectile dysfunction and how common is it?

Erectile dysfunction is the difficulty getting or maintain an erection and dysfunction it’s a common sexual problem. Between 1% to 10% of men under 40 are regularly unable to get an erection or to maintain an erection long enough for satisfactory sexual activity. The prevalence of erectile dysfunction increases with age, affecting 2 to 15% of men in their 40s, around 25% in their 50s, up to 40% in their 60s and almost all men aged 70 and older1. While it’s more common as you get older, sexual health is always important and there’s no age when you’re ‘too old’ to get help with erection problems.

What causes erectile dysfunction?

Erectile dysfunction may be caused by psychological problems such as stress and anxiety, or physical problems including nerve function and blood flow. Psychological factors are more common causes in young men, whereas physical causes are more common in older men.

Erectile dysfunction rarely occurs without some other underlying problem. Even if erectile dysfunction is not a problem for your sex life, it’s still important for your partner to see a doctor. If mental health is contributing to his erectile dysfunction, it may be reducing your quality of life in other ways and physical causes may be signs of underlying disease.

Men with erectile dysfunction are more likely to have cardiovascular disease than men with normal erectile function. Erectile dysfunction occurs 3 to 5 years before other effects of coronary heart disease2, which means that after erectile dysfunction starts there is time for men to take action to prevent heart attacks and other impacts of cardiovascular disease.

What someone with erectile dysfunction could be feeling

Depression and anxiety are common impacts of erectile dysfunction, and both can contribute to further problems with sexual function, including reduced libido or arousal. They may contribute to denial of the problem, not seeking help, or not using treatment3. Erectile dysfunction can also make men feel angry, isolated, guilty, and affect their self-esteem.

What you might be feeling

Erectile dysfunction isn’t just an individual problem – it also affects sexual partners. Female sexual partners of males with erectile dysfunction report problems with their own sexual function and satisfaction4.

Some partners of men with erectile dysfunction feel confused or anxious and may question their relationship or their partner’s feelings for them. The psychological impact can lead to sexual dysfunction of their own, with effects on their quality of life2. Although it can feel personal, no one is to blame for erectile dysfunction. Good communication between partners about erectile dysfunction and its effects is helpful. It’s important to seek help if your sex life or mental health is impacted too.

What you can do when your partner has erectile dysfunction

It can be difficult to discuss erectile dysfunction with your partner, but most men with the condition think their partner’s support is important2. Men who know their erectile dysfunction is having an effect on their partner and have their partner’s support are more likely to see their doctor for help2. Gently encourage your loved one to open up, assure them it’s an issue you can work through together and suggest professional support. An appointment with their GP is essential and specialists like counsellors or psychosexual therapists can also help.

Treatment of erectile dysfunction is more likely to be successful, and the results more satisfying for both partners, if both of you are involved in seeking help and managing treatment2. Female partners of men who use tablets to treat their erectile dysfunction report better sexual function and satisfaction, and better quality of life, than those whose partners choose not to receive treatment. It’s important to understand that treatment is unlikely to be a quick process with some trial and error involved in finding a solution that works for you both. Counselling can help with keeping communication open and effective, as well as helping you explore other forms of intimacy.

A couple might try to go it alone, managing erectile dysfunction themselves, but this can place strain on the relationship. Regardless of the cause of erectile dysfunction, getting the help of someone who is experienced and has expertise offers the best chance of a good outcome.

Although some aspects of erectile dysfunction may be different between men who have sex with females and those who have sex with men (e.g., recreational use of erectile dysfunction medicines and other drugs), considerations about effects on partners, and the benefits of partner’s support and engagement are the same.

References

[1] McCabe., 2016. Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Dysfunction in Women and Men: A Consensus Statement from the Fourth International Consultation on Sexual Medicine 2015. The Journal of Sexual Medicine

[2] Imprialos et al., 2021. Erectile Dysfunction as a Cardiovascular Risk Factor: Time to Step Up? Current Vascular Pharmacology

[3] Yafi et al., 2016. Erectile dysfunction. Nature Reviews Disease Primers

[4] Li et al., 2016. The role of the sexual partner in managing erectile dysfunction. Nature Reviews Urology

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