Couples who are arguing or in conflict often act as if one person is to blame for whatever is going on inside the couple. But the truth is that anything that happens in a couple happens to, and with, both people in the relationship. When one person in a couple is living with erectile dysfunction (ED) it has an impact on both individuals and on the couple as a whole. Few couples will find discussing erectile dysfunction easy, or fun, but if you want to stay together and maintain or develop a healthy sexual relationship, it's something that has to be talked about. Below are some tips on how to have productive discussions about erectile dysfunction.
Time Required: Make sure you talk when both of you have some time and you don't need to feel rushed.
- Collect Your Thoughts
Take some time on your own to clarify your thoughts and feelings about what's happening in the relationship. If you're the one with ED; how is it making you feel and think about yourself, your partner and your relationship? If you're partner has ED, how has that changed the way you have been feeling and thinking? Having some idea of what you want to talk about before you start the conversation can help you communicate more clearly, and it may also help you from projecting your issues on to your partner. Good communication requires that each person takes responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings. Which leads to the next tip.
- Establish Ground Rules
Setting down communication guidelines or rules will help any conversation, and is particularly important when couples talk about erectile dysfunction, a topic that is often loaded with emotion. The purpose of talking about ground rules before you talk about ED is so that you both can feel safe to communicate openly, and you both know what to expect from the other. Read more about how to set sexual communication ground rules
- Start with a Positive
Positive affirmations that don't feel genuine are a waste of time. The idea of talking to your partner about ED probably doesn't come with a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings. And you don't need to pretend. But, the fact is that you wouldn't be discussing erectile dysfunction as a couple if you didn't care about the relationship and each other. The conversations can be tough on both of you, and starting off by reminding each other that the reason you're having them is for love, hot sex, wanting to help, wanting to be honest, or any number of good intentions can ground you both in a way that may keep you going through the harder discussions.
- Describe What's Happening
Our discomfort with sexuality often leads couples to speak in vague terms when talking about sex. This can lead to misunderstandings and further frustration. One way to avoid this is to agree that you'll both talk as explicitly and honestly as you can about what you think is happening in the relationship. You don't have to agree on what's happening, you each have the right to your own experience. The goal is to be able to describe it for yourself AND hear what your partner has to say, to have the experience of both talking and being heard. You could start by taking turns talking about what you think is happening with the erectile dysfunction and what impact it's having on your sexual activities.
- Explain How You Feel
There is a lot of pop psychology pressure built up around the idea of "sharing your feelings" and there are plenty of unrealistic gender norms about how that's something women are good at and men are bad at. Try to forget about all of this. But it is important for each member of a couple to try and describe for the other how they are responding to the changes in the relationship since the ED began. There may be frustration, guilt, sadness, shame, anger, fear, relief, confusion, to name just a few responses. Whatever you are feeling, being able to say it out loud and not have the world come crashing down, and even maybe have your partner tell you it's okay, can be powerful.
- Talk About What You Need
Erectile dysfunction can have a devastating impact on the amount of sex you have and how you feel as sexual beings. It may help to both talk about what you need in the moment to start feeling good (or at least better) about yourself sexually and your sex life together. This talking point isn't about making demands, and you are definitely not responsible for fulfilling your partners needs. But you both have the right to talk about what you need, and hopefully together you will want to figure out a way to get some basic needs met while you're dealing with erectile dysfunction.
If you've been in a relationship for more than two days, you already know that being in a couple means compromise. Often erectile dysfunction creates problems in the way that couples are sexual and intimate together. A compromise can't be about one person getting their needs met at the expense of the other, but you can try to work together to come up with solutions so that negative feelings can be minimized. This might include agreeing to try different ways of being sexual and/or intimate that don't include intercourse, it might mean agreeing to take time and space apart if the sexual performance anxiety is too great. Whatever it means, remember that everything is open to negotiation and to change. But while you're trying to change and/or heal, you both may need to compromise to help each other get what you need to move forward.
- Consider Seeing a Sex Therapist
Not all sex therapists will be great couples counselors, but properly trained sex therapists are uniquely qualified to help a couple discuss and deal with erectile dysfunction. A sex therapist may see you together and separately, and will likely offer suggestions for exercises you can do both in session and at home to try and minimize the negative impact of erectile dysfunction on your sex life and relationship. Read more about sex therapy.
- Agree on Next Steps
You won't solve all your issues in one conversation. And if any conversation begins to get too difficult you don't need to force it and may want to agree to take a break from talking about ED for a while. But however you end a conversation, try to take a few minutes to agree on what comes next. No one likes having to wonder about when it will come up again, or when it's okay to talk about it next time. If one or both of you are feeling overwhelmed, you may want to agree that you aren't going to talk about it again for 7 days. Or you might both want to talk soon, in which case you can agree you'll have the next conversation in a few hours. The next steps don't need to be major ones, but talking about what comes next can give some context and also a sense of movement.
- End With Appreciation
None of us are taught how to talk about difficult sexual issues with our partners. You may have had some couples classes before you got into a relationship, but once there, you're usually on your own. So give yourself and each other some credit for the fact that you're even dealing with this. Some couples just shut down completely when one person has erectile dysfunction. They give up their sexual lives together because they can't talk about it. Couples discussing erectile dysfunction are doing something positive for their relationship, but it can be exhausting. Try to end each conversation by saying something nice to your partner. If it feels like you can't, then don't. But take a few minutes before you try, and if something you love or lust about your partner comes to mind, share it.