How erectile dysfunction can impact your relationship
Reviewed by our clinical team
Most sexually active men will be familiar with erectile dysfunction – even if they’ve never experienced it personally.
ED, or impotence, is the inability to achieve or maintain an erection during sex. It’s something that can happen on a one-off basis e.g. after drinking too much or when very tired. However, for lots of men it can be an ongoing problem.
If you’re someone who regularly experiences erectile dysfunction, there’s a good chance that you feel anxious and embarrassed about your symptoms. ED is common and nothing to be ashamed of, but there’s no denying it can have a big impact on your sex life and – as a result – your self-confidence and overall mental health.
ED can be particularly problematic for men in committed relationships, as it can cause anxiety and self-esteem issues in their partner too.
If you have ED and you’re worried about its impact on your relationship, the important thing to know is: you’re not alone! Erectile dysfunction affects most men to some extent during their lives, and can be managed very successfully with the right treatment approach. The first step is acknowledging the problem.
The causes of erectile dysfunction in a relationship
In many cases, the causes of erectile dysfunction are physical. In addition to being a natural part of getting older, ED can be brought on by conditions affecting the blood vessels, nerves or hormones. It can also be a side effect of certain types of medication.
However, some men are able to get erections at certain times (e.g. in the morning when waking up) but struggle to get erect during sex with a partner. In this case, it’s possible that ED has a psychological rather than physical cause – and that relationship issues are at the heart of the symptoms.
Relationship issues that can lead to ED include:
- Stress and anxiety at home e.g. money problems, family conflicts
- Arguments with your partner
- A partner with sexual dysfunction or trauma
- Loss of attraction to your partner or boredom in the relationship
In some cases, an initial episode of ED might lead to increased anxiety about sex, which in turn worsens symptoms.
How erectile dysfunction can impact a relationship
Anyone who has experienced or encountered ED in the past will know it can have a big impact on your relationship.
If you’re experiencing ED yourself you might feel embarrassed and anxious, and even worry that you’re “less of a man” because you can’t satisfy your partner. This in turn might lead to feelings of frustration and anger which spill over into other areas of your relationship.
For your partner, your symptoms – and the resulting lack of sex – might make them feel unattractive and unwanted, even if this isn’t the case! They may refrain from talking to you about the issue because they don’t want to embarrass you or hurt your feelings.
On both sides, these feelings can lead to a breakdown of communication, which only ends up worsening the problem. This is why it’s important to speak to your partner about how you’re feeling, even if the conversation is going to be tricky.
My boyfriend has erectile dysfunction. What should I do?
If the person you love is experiencing ED and it’s impacting your sex life and relationship, it can be really difficult to know how to address the problem.
The first thing to know is that his symptoms aren’t necessarily caused by a lack of attraction to you, or by issues in your relationship. As explained by the Sexual Advice Association, “all types of ED, including those that only happen with a partner, may be due to physical causes”.
The second thing to know is that there are lots of treatment approaches for managing erectile dysfunction. This is why the first step for your boyfriend should be making an appointment with the GP. If he’s regularly struggling to get an erection, there may be a physical issue that needs addressing, such as:
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- An overactive or underactive thyroid
- Low testosterone
- An injury to the penis
Your boyfriend should talk to the GP about the symptoms he’s experiencing, to give them a better idea of how and when his ED is a problem. If necessary, the GP can arrange tests to look for the kinds of conditions listed above.
In the event that your boyfriend is diagnosed, medication might be appropriate (e.g. to lower blood pressure or manage diabetes). He may also need to make some lifestyle changes like quitting smoking and losing weight, and try a short-term treatment like ED tablets.
If a physical cause doesn’t seem to be the issue, your boyfriend’s GP might recommend some form of counselling or sex therapy for both of you. Sex therapy might sound daunting but it can be really helpful as it can help to identify issues in the relationship, and encourage intimacy and communication.
You can learn more about sex therapy, including how to make an appointment with a therapist, at the Relate website here.