How to talk to your partner about erectile dysfunction
LAST UPDATED: Nov 11, 2022
4 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
Erectile dysfunction (ED) is when you have trouble getting an erection sufficient for satisfying sex. ED includes erections that don't last as long as you want, aren't as firm as you'd like, or inability to get an erection at all. If you or your partner has erectile dysfunction, it can be uncomfortable to discuss, whether with a partner or a healthcare provider, but you’re not alone.
With more than 30 million American men experiencing erectile dysfunction at some point, ED is the most common sexual dysfunction. And while erectile dysfunction becomes more common with age, young people experience ED, too (Nguyen, 2017).
So, what happens when erectile dysfunction enters the scene (a.k.a. the bedroom) when you’re with a special someone? Communication is key to healthy relationships, and sexual relationships are no different. Read on to learn how to talk to your partner about erectile dysfunction.
Dealing with erectile dysfunction in a new relationship
For many people, sexual performance is a matter of pride. If sexual performance suffers, so might self-esteem. In fact, self-esteem for all parties involved has a significant impact on the quality of relationships (and we have the science to prove it). According to one study, high self-esteem and secure attachment are directly correlated with happier, more satisfying relationships (Erol, 2016).
According to an online survey, 62% of participants reported that ED lowered their self-esteem. Another 29% said it affected their relationship and the remaining 21% indicated a relationship ended as a direct result of the condition (Tomlinson, 2004).
Problems caused by ED, particularly when beginning a new relationship, can run much deeper. Many people feel embarrassed to tell their partners about their ED or worry they’re disappointing their partners sexually. People might fear the person they love will leave, or a relationship will never begin at all. In heterosexual relationships, partners of a person with ED have reported feeling unattractive and worried that their partner is with someone else, which can trigger anxiety and depression in some (Li, 2016).
More research is needed to understand how ED impacts relationships, but studies suggest that ED can cause conflict between partners, creating fears of intimacy or rejection (Li, 2016; Vansintejan, 2013).
My boyfriend has erectile dysfunction. What should I do?
A sexual partner is often the first to notice subtle changes in the strength and frequency of a partner’s erections. So it’s essential to have a safe space to openly communicate about any changes you notice in your sex life.
Researchers on sexual health and intimacy have long encouraged practitioners to involve partners in conversations about ED—even asking them to come into the office for the first conversation about the problem. The individual with ED may reveal an aspect of the underlying cause that they’ve downplayed or withheld altogether (Li, 2016).
Starting the conversation about ED in a medical setting may help emphasize that ED is a medical condition and nothing to be ashamed of (or assign blame to). This understanding is crucial, since sexual performance anxiety—the fear that you won’t meet your partner’s expectations during sex—affects up to 25% of people (Rowland, 2019).
If you’ve noticed erectile issues in your partner, here are some strategies to approach the subject.
Sex therapy and erectile dysfunction
If beginning a conversation with your partner about erectile dysfunction in a doctor’s office isn’t for you, consider making an appointment with a sex therapist. A sex therapist (a mental health professional who specializes in sexual function and relationships) can help guide the conversation between you and your partner, identify sources of performance anxiety, and assist with conflict resolution.
One study of 36 couples who began sex therapy because of a partner’s erectile dysfunction found that about 70% of participants reported better communication and sexual adjustment, especially in the female partner's interest and enjoyment of sex (Hawton, 1992).
Tips to start the conversation
According to sexual health expert Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., “Your partner has to know this is important to you.”
This advice goes for people who experience ED and people who are impacted by a partner’s ED. Dr. Schwartz also advises to avoid bringing up the conversation in bed, or immediately after the problem has occurred.
No matter who approaches the subject first, Dr. Schwartz has a few more tips to create a safe space for a productive conversation:
Be prepared with materials about ED to reference during the conversation.
Begin the conversation in a non-threatening environment, like over breakfast.
Awkward pauses may arise. Have a drink, like coffee or wine, at the ready to sip as you take a breath and collect your thoughts.
Erectile dysfunction is treatable and impacts everyone involved in the relationship, not just the person who experiences ED. So, Dr. Schwartz’s advice is to view the solution as a team effort.
What to do if your partner becomes defensive
Sexual performance is a sensitive subject. It’s possible that bringing up erectile dysfunction to a partner may cause them to feel embarrassed and get defensive, Schwartz warns.
How you approach your partner may help, but it's a conversation that many people seek to avoid, she explains. If a partner gets upset or defensive, don't pursue the issue at that time. However, don't let them think you're dropping it for good, either.
"Back off, but tell them you really need to follow up on this," Schwartz says. She recommends ending the conversation on a positive note. "Reassure them that you think they're sexy, and you're only bringing it up because you feel your relationship is strong enough to work on this and make things better."
If your partner insists there is no problem, educational materials may help to gently guide the conversation.
"If your partner says they're 'normal' and it's your problem, show them some written material and ask them if it describes the two of you together," Schwartz advises. "You can tell them that this condition is common, but one reason you’re worried is it can be a sign of a worse problem, and you’d like to get a check-up for their continued health––as well as for your sex life.
ED is treatable
ED treatments benefit all people in a relationship. Research has found that people on PDE-5 inhibitors (a class of drugs including ED medications like Viagra and Cialis reported that their partners' sexual satisfaction was intertwined with their own. Men also said they were more likely to continue treatment after seeing their partners satisfied (Dean, 2006).
Most importantly, remember that erectile dysfunction is nothing to be ashamed of. Whether you visit the clinic solo or with a partner, a healthcare provider can help develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Viagra Important Safety Information: Read more about serious warnings and safety info.
Cialis Important Safety Information: Read more about serious warnings and safety info.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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