Erectile dysfunction (ED),
commonly known as impotence, can be troubling, even devastating, to a man. But
it can be equally so for his partner as well, as Beth (who asked that her real
name not be used) found out.
"It really undermines a relationship," says Beth, who
recently broke off an engagement with a man who suffers from ED. It's
especially difficult, she adds, if the man blames his partner, as her fiancé
Men who have trouble getting erections have sex less often than men with
normal sexual function, several studies have shown.
But can a long sexual dry spell actually cause erectile dysfunction
(ED)? And can men cut their risk for ED by having sex (or masturbating) on a
"Even though my fiancé admitted that he had always had
difficulties with his erections," says Beth, "he tried to tell me that
it was my fault. After you hear that enough, you start to believe it, and it
can really affect your self-esteem."
That's not unusual, says Karen Donahey, PhD, director of the
Sex and Marital Therapy Program at Northwestern University Medical Center in
Chicago. "A woman may struggle with the notion that she's no longer
attractive to her man," says Donahey. "Even if the man assures her it's
not true, there's still a worry there."
The stronger a woman's self-esteem is, says Donahey, the less
threatened she'll feel by her partner's erectile dysfunction and the more
supportive she'll be able to be.
ED Is Not Uncommon
"It's important for both men and women to realize that ED
is not at all uncommon," says Donahey. Indeed, most estimates suggest that
at least 50% of men in the U.S. experience some form of sexual dysfunction at
some point in their lives. ED is one of the most common male sexual problems,
affecting an estimated 30 million men in the U.S. and approximately 140 million
Though ED may indeed be common, it's still stressful, and in a
study conducted by Pfizer (which makes the impotence drug Viagra), research
showed that most women, where their quality of life is concerned, rank ED
higher in importance than menopausal symptoms, infertility, allergies, obesity, and insomnia.
In a series of focus groups, Pfizer researchers found that when
faced with ED, women -- and their partners -- either acknowledged that they had
a problem or denied the existence of a problem. "While this may be
intuitive, our research showed that there are differences in how women
acknowledge the problem and how they deny the problem," says Janice Lipsky,
PhD, senior marketing manager for the sexual
health team at Pfizer.
How Couples Approach the Problem
Some couples are what Lipsky calls overcomers, with a strong
desire to resolve ED. Others are resigners, who admit there is a problem but
decide not to seek treatment to resolve it.
Then there are avoiders, couples who refuse to admit and
discuss ED, and, finally, alienators, women who feel so angry that they not
only withdraw from their relationship, but may even demean their partner or
seek intimacy elsewhere.