3rd August, 202214 min read

When he can’t get hard: a couple’s guide to erectile dysfunction

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You’re having a lazy Sunday morning in bed with your partner. You’re both feeling in the mood for sex. But then the moment passes, because he can’t get or keep an erection. You’re both left feeling frustrated and upset, and you’re wondering what’s wrong. Has he met someone else? Is he even attracted to you?

“It’s natural to feel concerned if your partner has erection problems,” says

Dr Adiele Hoffman
, doctor and Healthily expert. “Erectile dysfunction (ED) can affect his self-esteem and mood. And you may both be frustrated if you’re not having the sex life you want. Whether you’re a wife, girlfriend, partner or still working out what the relationship is, it’s common to feel rejected, and think that your partner isn’t attracted to you. You might also worry about whether it’s a sign of other problems between you. All this means it’s likely to have a big impact on your relationship. But ED is usually a problem that can be treated. And there are plenty of things you can do to help.”

You can help your partner with erectile dysfunction

ED – sometimes called impotence – is a common problem. It's more likely with increasing age, but recent research has also suggested 1 in 4 men seeking first-time medical help for it are under 40. Some research suggests it affects 1 in 3 men at some point. But it can be a really tricky thing to deal with, whether you’re with a new partner who can’t get hard, or erection problems have started to affect a longer-term relationship.

The good news is you can find a way through it together. In fact, in a survey of men with ED, 94% said their partner’s support was important. So here’s what you need to know about coping with ED as a couple.

(If you’re a man whose partner’s having erection issues, lots of the insights and tips here will be helpful).

What is erectile dysfunction?

ED is when a man regularly has problems getting or keeping an erection that’s hard enough for penetrative sex that satisfies you both. Occasionally failing to get an erection – because he’s tired, stressed or has been drinking, for example – doesn’t necessarily mean he has ED. It’s only usually a concern if it happens often.

“It’s not easy to define exactly what counts as happening often,” says Dr Adiele Hoffman. “But if he’s having erection problems every time, every other time or even just every few times, and it seems to be persistent, we might call this a problem. And if it's starting to affect your sex life or relationship, I'd say it's time to talk to a doctor.”

Lots of people think of ED as an emotional or relationship issue. And these things often play a part. But erection problems can also be a symptom of an underlying condition that needs treating. In some ways, it could be reassuring to know there may be a medical issue – and it’s nothing to do with how he feels about you. And whether the cause is physical or emotional, ED is something that can usually be treated effectively.

Read more about erectile dysfunction and what causes it.

Erection problems and your relationship

For many couples, ED is a really difficult issue that puts a lot of pressure on the relationship. It can affect you both as individuals and as a couple.

Some research suggests that women may become aware of the problem before their male partners. This might be because men are more likely to deny the issue and not want to accept there’s a problem.

How ED can affect female partners

Research has found that female partners of men with ED may:

  • feel confused and rejected
  • worry he might be having an affair or losing interest
  • have lower self-esteem, feel ashamed about their body and doubt their attractiveness
  • have more severe
    menopause
    mood symptoms if they’re at midlife
  • have a lower sex drive and find it harder to orgasm

How ED can affect him

Studies show that men can be emotionally affected by just 1 episode of ED, especially if they’re younger. If it goes on, he may:

  • be anxious he can’t please you
  • worry he’s letting you down
  • feel like less of a man (emasculated) and insecure
  • feel scared you’ll leave him

How ED can affect your relationship

As ED can make you both feel so vulnerable, it’s not surprising that it can change the way you behave with each other.

It’s common for both of you to withdraw emotionally. You might pull away because you feel unloved. He might withdraw because he feels ashamed, and worried you’re going to reject him. Research shows it’s also common for couples to avoid getting intimate once ED has started happening.

“This reaction is completely understandable,” says Dr Adiele Hoffman. “You’re both just trying to protect your hurt feelings – and each other’s. But sadly, it’s probably one of the worst things that can happen at such a fragile time in your relationship.The more you avoid the issue, the more difficult it’s likely to get.”

Remember: ED is often caused by a mix of emotional and physical issues, and it can even be an early sign of a potentially serious health issue, such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes (find out more about causes in our

main article on ED
). So it’s important to face it together, and support him either way to get the help he needs.

Talking about erection problems

It can feel difficult to talk about sexual problems, but communication’s the key to dealing with ED. Talking about it can help you both understand what’s really going on, which can:

  • ease anxiety
  • clear up any misunderstandings or assumptions you may have made
  • help you come up with solutions together

Tips for talking about erection problems with your partner

That’s not to say it’s going to be easy. You might be worried about hurting his feelings. And you may not be used to talking about sex in a frank and open way. So here are some tips that may help:

  • think about what you want to say in advance – you both know there’s a problem, but it might be helpful to think about how you’ve been feeling as a result, and any concerns you have about him and your relationship
  • choose a good time – avoid sharing your concerns when you’re getting physically intimate (or trying to), as you’re both likely to feel more vulnerable and emotional. Don’t bring it up when you’re stressed or in a rush, either. Instead, pick a time when you’re feeling close and relaxed, such as when you’re out for a weekend walk or cuddled up in front of the TV
  • try to be honest but kind – being direct is usually helpful, but don’t blame or attack. You could say something like, “I’m feeling worried we’re not having sex like we used to. I’m wondering whether you’re worried, too. Could we have a chat about it?”
  • don’t forget to listen – it’s sometimes difficult when you’re feeling emotional or nervous, but it’s important that you understand what he’s saying, and that he feels heard too - that way you’re more likely to come up with a plan that works for you both

If he doesn’t want to talk, remember that may be because he’s feeling ashamed and worried. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. Try to stay calm, and go back to the conversation another time.

If he keeps refusing to talk about it, or talking doesn’t go well, you could show him this article and our

main article on erectile dysfunction
. Or you could point him towards an organisation that may help, such as the
Sexual Advice Association
in the UK or the
American Sexual Health Association
. It may also be a good idea to suggest couple’s
counselling
. This gives you a safe space to explore your feelings with someone neutral.

Orgasm without erection – how to be satisfied

While you’re getting to the root cause of ED, sex experts often suggest changing the way you’re intimate with each other.

Bear in mind he may think penetrative sex is more important to you than it actually is – research suggests men often rate it as more important than female partners do. For example, 1 study found 60% of partners of men with ED rated foreplay as the most enjoyable thing about sex.

It can be helpful to take the focus off penetrative sex and orgasms. Instead, you could try to find pleasure in different ways. Think of it as play and experimentation, rather than trying to fix a sex problem. Getting intimate in different ways could include taking time for:

  • kissing and cuddling
  • massaging each other
  • using sex toys
  • watching erotic films together
  • mutual masturbation

If he gets an erection while you’re being intimate, try to encourage him not to push towards orgasm. Allow his erection to come and go, without feeling like there’s pressure to orgasm.
You could say something like: “I’m not in any hurry – why don’t we just carry on like this and see what happens?”

When to see a doctor

If your partner’s erection problems have gone on for more than a few weeks or the situation is affecting his mood, encourage him to see a doctor. ED can sometimes be an early warning sign of a more serious problem, such as heart disease, so it’s important he gets it checked out (

our article on ED
has the main causes of erection problems).

Plus, the sooner you find the cause of the problem, the sooner it can be treated and you can both get back to enjoying the sex life you want.

You could also suggest he tries our

Smart Symptom Checker
to help him work out what’s going on and make it easier to discuss his symptoms with a doctor.

What if he doesn’t want to see a doctor?

Many men can be reluctant to get help – 1 study found almost 2 in 3 men don’t see their doctor about ED, with embarrassment the top reason. But other research suggests that a partner’s encouragement is 1 of the key things that persuades men to seek help. So you can really make a difference here.

Tips to encourage him to get help for ED

If he’s reluctant to go, you could:

  • remind him that ED is a common issue. The doctor will have seen it lots of times before, and is trained to help with it. Most men don’t like the idea of discussing sexual problems with a doctor, but it probably won’t be anywhere near as embarrassing as he may fear
  • encourage him to arrange a telephone consultation, which may feel easier than talking to a doctor face to face. He’ll probably need a physical check at some point, but he might feel more comfortable explaining the problem over the phone at first
  • explain that ED can be a sign of a medical problem that can be treated. He might be worried about finding out there’s a serious underlying cause, but whatever the reason for his erection problems, it’s likely to be something that can be helped
  • be positive – research suggests that if you’re optimistic and frame this as an issue that can be resolved, he’s more likely to feel motivated about getting help

Read about the ED treatments a doctor may suggest or prescribe.

Help your partner make erection-friendly lifestyle changes

As well as help from a doctor, lifestyle changes can make a big difference in ED. For example, research shows that losing excess weight and doing more exercise can reduce risk of ED by as much as 70%. Read more about lifestyle steps to help with erectile dysfunction.

The lifestyle changes that help with erection problems are things that are good for everyone’s overall wellbeing. So you can join in – and give him lots of encouragement to make the changes. Like everything else when it comes to ED, this is teamwork.

Here are a few examples of ways you could help:

  • cook nutritious meals together – find tips for a
    healthy diet
  • be an exercise buddy – you could try a couch to 5k running plan together, take up a new sport as a couple or start dancing lessons
  • if you both need to
    quit smoking
    or
    cut down on alcohol
    , you could support each other by setting small goals and rewarding yourselves when you hit them
  • deal with stress together by taking time to go for relaxing walks in nature, massaging each other or learning
    meditation

Could sex therapy help him stay hard?

Sex therapy can be useful, with or without other treatment for ED – it helps to change the way you both approach intimacy. Read more about sex therapy.

If the situation has put a lot of pressure on your relationship – or brought up underlying issues that were already there – couples

counselling
may be useful. This helps you explore feelings and attitudes in your relationship. Unlike sex therapy, it won’t necessarily give you tools for helping with your sex life, although some couples therapists are also trained as sex therapists.

If he won’t agree to go to relationship counselling and you want to, you could try:

  • reassuring him that the therapist won’t take sides – they offer a safe, neutral space for you both to talk about your feelings
  • suggesting that you find a counsellor together, so he feels it’s a choice you’re both making, rather than something you’re leading on
  • offering to go to an introductory session with him, with no pressure to go again if it doesn’t feel right

Looking after yourself

Having sexual difficulties in your relationship can be tough on you. Even if you’re getting help together and trying to make changes, giving all that support and encouragement can be draining – especially if the situation has affected your self-esteem and mood.

So take time to care for yourself and deal with any issues this brings up for you. You could consider whether counselling might be helpful for you on your own. And be sure to make time to do things you enjoy, both as a couple and by yourself.

What about masturbation?

Masturbating (touching yourself) can be a good way to have an orgasm while you’re trying to address his erection problems, and lots of women do it even if they have a satisfying sex life with a partner - it can be de-stressing as well as pleasurable. Just try to make sure you’re not using it as a way to avoid talking about the issue, and you’re not shutting him out. You could think about involving him sometimes when you masturbate - it can be a great way to show him how you like to be touched, and can be a pressure-free way for you him to be sexual with you.

Your health questions answered

How can I conceive when my husband has erection problems?

Answered by:

Dr Ann Nainan

“Erection problems are especially challenging if you want to have a baby. And trying to conceive puts pressure on you to have sex at specific times – which is unhelpful for any sexual issues. This is difficult when you want to get pregnant, but try to avoid making sex all about conception. Try to enjoy being physical and intimate with each other at all times, not just when you’re

ovulating
. The best thing to do is speak to your doctor together. They can help you address ED, so you have a good chance of conceiving naturally. They’ll also be able to refer you for further support if you need it.”

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.