Sexual Wellness Resource Center
For Adults over 50.

How to Help Your Partner With Erectile Dysfunction (ED)

Woman Supporting Partner
By Michael Bates, M.D.

A partner’s guide to erectile dysfunction: how to recognize it, how to talk about it, and how to support him when he needs it most.

Something has changed.

Your partner’s erection comes more slowly or he may not get an erection at all. Or, he loses his erection before or during intercourse.

He stops initiating sexual contact. You may feel rejected and ask yourself if he’s lost interest in you—if he no longer finds you attractive. You may even worry he’s seeing someone else.

The most likely answer is that he isn't rejecting you and there isn't another partner. The most likely answer is erectile dysfunction (ED).

Erectile dysfunction is a very treatable condition in which a man either can't get an erection sufficient for penetration or can't maintain it. ED becomes more common after age 40. As many as half of men over 50 may suffer from this condition.

First, let's talk about how to support your partner with ED, then we'll talk solutions.

Erectile dysfunction affects a man's psyche.

older man dealing with stress

The first time a man experiences problems with his erection after years of normal function it can be like a punch in the gut. For most men, their sexual performance is a matter of pride. Men equate their erections with masculinity—their manhood.

If ED becomes a recurrent problem for a man, he often begins to develop performance anxiety. He worries that he may not get an erection and is deeply embarrassed. He begins to withdraw from sexual contact. He may say he is tired or not in the mood. He may withdraw from any kind of physical intimacy—even kissing and hugging—scared to death that it might lead to another ''unsuccessful'' sexual encounter.

I repeat—this doesn't mean he isn't attracted to you. Though it's difficult when you feel rejected, try not to take it personally. ED is a medical condition that can be successfully treated.

How can you support your partner with erectile dysfunction?

1. Start the conversation.

"Talk about it" is the standard advice...but how? Talking about sex can be awkward under the best of circumstances, but if you're intimate enough to have sex, you're intimate enough to talk about it.

First, it's better to talk outside of the bedroom. Tell him that you love him, that you enjoy your sex life and that you've noticed a change in your sexual pattern. Explain to him that you'd like to get your sex life back to where it was.

You may find that your partner is relieved that you opened the subject—that he wanted to talk about it but didn't know how to begin or was too embarrassed and ashamed. You'll likely be taking a huge weight off his shoulders.

2. Go to his doctor together.

Make an appointment to see his doctor. ED can be an early sign of heart disease or diabetes. Go with him to the doctor. You are a team, and having a true partner at his side will increase the chance of success.

The doctor will take his blood pressure and do a physical exam. He or she will order tests for diabetes, cholesterol levels and heart disease. He or she will ask about any medications your partner is taking. Some medications for high blood pressure (specifically beta-blockers) and certain antidepressants can cause erection problems. The doctor may be able to recommend a reduced dosage or a different medication.

What are the medical options for treating ED?

If there are no contraindications (for example, heart disease) the doctor will prescribe Viagra or a similar medication. These medications work well for most men. However, some men don't get the response they would like and others find the side effects difficult to tolerate. Side effects include facial flushing, abnormal vision, headache and nausea.

Other medical options include suppositories that are inserted into the urethra at the head of the penis, self-injections into the penis, penis rings and vacuum pumps, and even surgically implanted devices. With the advice of his doctor your partner may progress from one option to the next until he finds the one that works best. Sometimes, a combination of treatments is what works.

Let's talk a little more about penis rings and pumps for ED.

Penis Rings

Penis rings (also called erection rings and c-rings) are helpful if your man can get an erection but can't keep it.

Penis rings are usually stretchy and made of rubber or silicone. You or your man puts the ring around the base of the penis before erection. The ring allows the flow of blood into the penis to create an erection but prevents it from flowing back out until the ring is removed.

Tissue damage can occur if a ring is left in place for more than 20 minutes, and your man should never go to sleep wearing a ring. Water-based lubricant makes removal more comfortable.

If you want to try penis rings, I recommend the stretchy variety because of ease and comfort of use. No measurements are necessary and they are inexpensive, so you can buy two or three of different sizes to see which works best for you. Here are three good examples:

Penis Pumps

Pumps are indicated for men who can get a partial erection or for those who can't get any kind of erection. They require practice and patience to use.

A clear plastic rigid cylindrical tube is placed over the penis, and is sealed to the lower abdominal skin at the base of the penis with a gel. Next, either a manual or electric pump is used to create negative pressure in the tube which then draws blood into the penis, resulting in an erection. Finally, as the tube is removed a ring is slipped off the base of the tube over the base of the penis to prevent the blood from flowing out until removal.

Both rings and pumps can be purchased in pharmacies or sex toy shops. They are usually less expensive in sex shops—something to keep in mind in case you find you don't like to use it. Pumps range from very basic models to premium FDA approved medical pumps.

My article on Penis Pumps for ED has more information on pump use, safety and how to choose the right model.

Sex toys are an overlooked non-medical treatment option for ED.

I believe that vibrators are underappreciated and under used for ED. If you happen to use one, help your partner try it. A good non-gender vibrator like the We-Vibe Tango will be fun for both of you!

There are now vibrators made just for penises, sometimes called "guybrators." You'll also see them marketed as "stimulators." One of the best is the Hot Octopuss Pulse, which comes in Solo and Duo models. It uses high-amplitude oscillations to stimulate the penis, and your man doesn't even have to have an erection to use and enjoy it!

I also recently learned of what may be a revolutionary FDA APPROVED vibrator that has the science to back its claims. While it is not inexpensive, the Viberect® has an impressive success rate inducing erection and may be a viable option when other vibrators and stimulators have not worked or worked well enough. You can find out more in my article on Viberect and ED treatment.

Expanding your definition of sex can open the door to a new world of intimacy and pleasure.

black and white image of loving couple kissing

Let's talk about one more thing that can be a great relief and comfort while on this journey and treatment of ED.

In our society we unfortunately, and wrongly, put too much emphasis on PIV (penis in vagina) intercourse as the definition of "sex." Sex is not only about erections and penetration. As the many, many people in the world who enjoy a rich and fulfilling sex life that doesn't include PIV can tell you, sex is so much more than that. Non-penetrative sexual activity—outercourse—is sex. Wonderful, intimate sex!

During this journey, rather than focus on the non-performing penis, focus on sexual intimacy and all the things you can do. Men can orgasm without an erection. Most women don't orgasm with penetration alone anyway—clitoral stimulation is the main factor. By taking the pressure off, some men may find that their ED symptoms actually improve, as performance anxiety often exacerbates the condition.

So what am I talking about?

  • Kissing (remember making out for hours?)
  • Body-to-body rubbing
  • Mutual masturbation
  • Oral sex
  • Showering together
  • Sex toys
  • Role play
  • Massage

Have fun exploring and identifying each other's erotic zones—not only the genitals but also breasts and nipples for men and women. The prostate gland is another very sensitive and exciting zone for men that many of them haven't yet discovered!

Take a look at our Beginner Guide to Outercourse. Go over it as a couple and talk about what things look good to you and what you'd like to try. You may find that your sex gets better than ever!

What is the take-home message?

1. Communicate.

2. Go to his doctor together.

3. Treatment often involves a step by step trial of medical solutions. Be patient and try not to get discouraged. ED is a condition that can be successfully treated in most men.

4. Try sex toys.

5. Explore outercourse. It offers great sexual intimacy and orgasm without the need for erection and penetration.

If you have questions about the ED or other sexual health issues, don't hesitate to Ask the Expert.

As per our Terms of Use, this article is for general educational and informational purposes only and is not meant to serve as a substitute for professional medical advice. Consult with your own physician or health care practitioner regarding the use of any information received here before using or relying on it. Your physician or health care practitioner should address any and all medical questions, concerns, and decisions regarding the possible treatment of any medical condition.

About the Author

Michael Bates, M.D.

Dr Bates practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 34 years in Wichita, Kansas, until his retirement in 2011.

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