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When your partner has erectile dysfunction

6 minute read
Couple laughing and smiling on the couch for an article on erectile dysfunction

ED doesn’t just happen to one person — it affects significant others, too. Here’s how to support your partner through the challenge and enhance your overall relationship. 


Jennifer Howze

By Jennifer Howze

There’s a reason you often hear that erectile dysfunction (ED) happens to a lot of guys. It’s because it actually does. For some men, it’s every once in a while; for others, ED is a more frequent occurrence. In both cases it’s normal and treatable. But as difficult as it is for the guy, it can be just as challenging for his partner. You may not know the best way to talk about it or support him, which is stressful. And the fact that it’s happening at all can make you feel unsure about yourself and the relationship.

An enjoyable sex life can be a hugely rewarding part of life, and any speed bumps deserve attention and care. Here’s how to navigate your way through the ED experience in a way that supports your partner, validates your own feelings and enhances your relationship.

What to do when ED happens

If you’re having a romantic moment and ED occurs, keep this in mind:

“Occasional difficulties with erections are really common, especially in men over 40,” says Zoë Peterson, PhD. She’s a clinical psychologist and senior scientist at the Kinsey Institute. Even for younger men, ED is not unusual: 1 in 4 men who are newly diagnosed with it are under 40, according to The Journal of Sexual Medicine.

And while it may feel upsetting to both you and your partner, the best thing you can do is take the pressure off. “The more you try to achieve something sexually, the harder it is to achieve,” says Peterson. And because some ED is caused by stress, getting stressed out about it doesn’t help anyone.

Peterson suggests moving to a sexual activity that doesn’t require an erection. Doctors do suggest talking about it with your partner at some point, since there may be medical issues at play. Plus, ED can also start to affect the relationship if it happens regularly and you don’t address it. Return to the discussion later in a way that’s calm and reassuring.

The Optum Store offers a virtual one-stop shop for ED treatment and medication home delivery. Learn more.

How to talk about ED with your partner

When ED occurs, it can make both partners feel vulnerable and worried about their role in the situation. So choose a low-key moment to bring it up, perhaps when you’re on a walk together or prepping a meal. Discussions about sex, including what you like and don’t like, tend to go better when you’re not in the heat of the moment, says Peterson.

Wait until you’re both dressed and then “talk about it directly,” she suggests, without blaming or accusing. If you’re having trouble with that conversation, attending a few sessions of couples therapy can help, Peterson says. (If you’re looking for a therapist, our network of mental health professionals is standing by. Learn more.)

Your partner’s ED isn’t all about you

“The biggest question partners have is usually, ‘Is it me?’” says Richard R. Augspurger, MD. He’s a medical director with Optum. He's also a urologist and the former medical director of the Urology Center of Colorado in Denver.

This blame game is complicated by the stereotype that men are always in the mood for sex and that it’s simple for them, says Peterson. So when a man can’t get an erection, “partners can take it personally. They may feel like the man isn’t attracted to them or interested in sex with them. They may also assume that he could be having sex with someone else.”

Putting the brakes on this runaway train of thoughts helps you deal with the real causes — not phantom theories — and the best solutions.

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When your partner has ED, allow yourself to have your own response

Yes, the best approach is to stay calm and receptive. But it’s also okay to acknowledge to yourself that you might feel rejected, sad, concerned, scared or frustrated. You can even share those feelings with your partner, as long as it’s not in a blaming way. Having those feelings doesn’t mean you’re overreacting or “punishing” your partner. It simply means you’re human.

ED also doesn’t mean the end of intimacy or satisfying sex in your relationship, whatever the cause. (See more about causes below.) Once you work through your feelings, you’ll be better able to support your partner and more quickly address the issue. All of this will have a positive effect on your relationship.

The common causes of ED

People often think that erectile dysfunction is all about desire in the moment. But in fact, it has several causes, and some of them are related to overall physical health. ED can be associated with heart problems, diabetes and high cholesterol. It can also be related to the use of pain medications or antidepressants. Or it can have psychological causes such as stress or depression. (Read more about what ED can reveal about health.)

If your partner is experiencing frequent ED, or if it comes on suddenly, it’s important that he gets assessed by a doctor. By encouraging him to seek treatment, you’re supporting him in his overall health.

ED can also impact your partner’s self-esteem, confidence and satisfaction with your sex life. So the sooner he seeks treatment, the better he’ll feel physically, emotionally and sexually. You can help your partner get started for any episodic or frequent ED he may be experiencing by exploring the Optum Store virtual prescription service for ED.

Remember: You’re in this together

By attending a doctor’s appointment with your partner, you can show him that you understand ED is an important issue, while also providing valuable support.

“A lot of the time, the partner is the one who asks them to seek help,” says Dr. Augspurger. The partner may be the one asking questions or encouraging their significant other to share important details, he says.

In addition, by taking notes, asking follow-up questions and checking in with him about how he’s feeling, you’ll educate yourself. You’ll also reinforce the idea that you’re on the same team. While you’re at the appointment, you can also get a recommendation for couples therapy or sex therapy, says Peterson.

To learn more about the causes and treatments of ED, check out Erectile dysfunction: The Optum Guide.

Remind him he is not his erection

The effect of ED shouldn’t be brushed off. But it can be helpful to focus on other attributes that help your partner feel good about himself as a man. Research by the Kinsey Institute shows that key components of many men’s sense of masculinity include being seen as honorable, self-reliant and respected.

By reminding your partner (and yourself) about admirable qualities that have nothing to do with sexual function, you help him see he has a lot to offer outside of the bedroom.

For example, let him know what a great family guy he is (“You’re an amazing dad/son”) or how he makes you feel safe and loved in non-physical ways. Perhaps he puts in extra effort to be the one to shut out the lights at night or always remembers your mom’s birthday. This positively challenges the stereotype that “being a man” is something that mainly happens in the bedroom.

Do other fun stuff between the sheets

It’s not all about penetration. “I suggest incorporating sexual activity that doesn’t require an erection. That helps to take the pressure off,” says Peterson. For some, penetrative sex isn’t always the most pleasurable activity anyway. For the man, “you can climax even if you don’t get an erection,” says Dr. Augspurger. As long as he still experiences normal sensation in his penis, with stimulation he can achieve orgasm even with a partial erection — or without one at all.

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Additional sources
Erectile dysfunction in young men: The Journal of Sexual Medicine (2020). "One Patient Out of Four with Newly Diagnosed Erectile Dysfunction Is a Young Man—Worrisome Picture from the Everyday Clinical Practice"
Strategies for partners: Harvard Medical School (2020). "7 Strategies for Partnering Up With ED"
The Kinsey Institute study: Journal of Sexual Medicine (2008). "Erectile Dysfunction and Constructs of Masculinity and Quality of Life in the Multinational Men’s Attitudes to Life Events and Sexuality (MALES) Study"
How erectile dysfunction affects a relationship: UCLA Health (n.d.). "Dealing with Erectile Dysfunction"