How to Avoid Making Impotence a Marriage-Breaker

Here's the deal on erectile dysfunction.

couple cuddling in bed

Toa Heftiba / unsplash

If your partner has had a problem maintaining an erection, chances are, your sex life has taken a hit, too. First things first: Ask your partner to visit a doctor to determine the cause of their impotence (whether it's emotional or physical). Getting to the root of the issue will help both of you figure out what to do next.

What Is Impotence?

Impotence, or erectile dysfunction, is the inability to achieve or sustain an erection until orgasm.

You might feel frustrated, both sexually and emotionally, and the next step might seem unclear, but it's important to remain as considerate and gentle as possible when broaching the subject. "When one partner experiences a sexual dysfunction, it impacts all parties involved—it’s no longer the 'man’s issue' but the couple’s issue," says intimacy expert Carolynn Aristone. "Open, honest communication is key to navigating the experience together."

Meet the Expert

Carolynn Aristone, MSW, LCSW, CST, is a sex therapist with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner and director of the Center for Intimate Relationships and creator of the Intimacy Breakthrough, an online course for couples.

If you're unsure of what to do, don't worry. Consider this your cheat sheet for getting through it so that you can come out the other side stronger and better than ever.

Bide Your Time

If your partner is dealing with a lot of stress, has anxiety or depression, or unresolved issues from their family of origin, it may interfere with their ability to maintain an erection. If impotence has been a consistent issue long enough that you want to have an honest conversation (and maybe suggest visiting a specialist), decide when you're going to talk about it. Bringing this up impulsively isn't the best course of action.

If you just attempted intimacy and they struggled to develop an erection, talking about it in that moment when they may be feeling vulnerable, frustrated, and embarrassed can come across as a bit insensitive. "It’s important that [the non-impotent partner] not personalize the experience and turn it into anything bigger than it is," says Aristone. A lost erection does not necessarily mean that he’s not attracted to them or that he doesn’t want to be with them sexually."

"It’s also important to not 'try' to make the erection happen. This only furthers any pressure and failure he might feel," says Aristone. Wait until the right moment when he may be more open to talking about it before bringing it up. You'll be able to have a mature, honest discussion that isn't riddled with emotions.

Offer Support

This issue can be quite emotional for your partner, so communicating your support can do wonders for their self-esteem and your relationship. "I’m a firm believer in having the non-impotent partner verbally 'check in' with the impotent partner first," says Aristone. "Directly ask, 'How can I be supportive right now?' instead of assuming that you know what your partner wants to hear. It’s then on the impotent partner to reciprocate and honestly share what they might need in that moment." If they want to talk, do your best to listen and offer advice or support in whatever form they may need. If they don't want to talk, try to give them some space. Sometimes a little alone time is enough to bring someone back to reality.

Practice Patience

The best way of coping with the issues surrounding impotence is to communicate with your partner about it, especially if their way of coping is to compartmentalize, de-sexualize, or refuse to acknowledge there is a problem. That said, you can't expect everything to just magically fall into place after having a discussion and going to a doctor. Especially if the issue is emotional (as opposed to physical), it may take some time to dissipate. Cognitive reframing by redefining sex and intimacy can help take some of the pressure off.

"Influenced by pornography and cultural definitions of masculinity, myths such as 'all men should be able to produce firm erections that last for hours upon command' keep couples stuck in unrealistic sexual expectations and sets them up for failure," says Aristone. "Traditionally and culturally, sex is equated with penetration, but couples need to expand how they define sex beyond penetrative acts. Couples can sexually play together and experience whole-body loving that doesn’t necessarily require erections or penetration."

She adds that sharing affection through non-sexual or sexual touch helps the body remain open to receiving touch and keeps the couple both physically and emotionally connected, providing both security and reassurance.

Seek Professional Guidance

No one expects you to solve this problem on your own. If either partner feels sexually dissatisfied, then meeting with a therapist could be beneficial. "I highly recommend working with a certified sex therapist as opposed to a marriage and family counselor," says Aristone. "Sex therapists are specifically trained to address such intimate topics as impotence whereas a more generalist relationship counselor is not."

Consider Yourself

This issue affects you too, so don't push your own feelings aside to protect your partner. "It’s important for the non-impotent partner to have a safe space to share the impact on them, some of that sharing should be relational within the partnership, but it could be helpful for them to seek out their own therapist," explains Aristone. "If they overshare with their impotent partner, this could create unintentional pressure that could sabotage the desired outcome."

Practicing self-love can also be a healthy coping strategy. Aristone encourages masturbation as a way to achieve sexual satisfaction without adding pressure to your partner. You can even include them if they are willing.

If you've given your relationship time and patience, and it's simply not working, don't feel obligated to stay out of love. A successful relationship is comprised of two happy individuals, so if you're not feeling excited about your partner or your love life, you may want to consider taking a break.

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