Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
We don’t claim to know everything about our readers, but we have a sneaking suspicion we know what you expected to read when you clicked on this headline: the word yes.
Guys can (and often do) feel embarrassed if they can’t get a boner. It’s awkward, it’s a disappointment for everyone involved and — if it becomes a pattern — it can also be a sign that the man in flaccid condition might have some health issues to address.
How any erectile issues affect your relationship is up to the two of you. Erectile dysfunction (ED) can either be a rock in the path that you can get around or a snowball at the top of a hill that only gets bigger. How you and your partner handle it will play a large part in determining which way it goes.
That's why we’ve explained why guys get embarrassed, whose fault ED is (hint: it’s no one’s), why it happens and how to deal with it.
But first, let’s get in your partner’s head as he’s experiencing ED.
We’re not here to make blanket statements about any gender, but we do think there is one time where we can confidently say it’s very difficult being a man: when you can’t get hard.
Men are expected to perform every time. Call it the patriarchy, or toxic masculinity or the influence of porn on society, but both men and women come into sexual encounters expecting him to be hard and her to be ready.
As women, guys and nonbinary folks eventually learn, that’s not always the case. But that knowledge doesn’t necessarily stop a guy’s instinct to feel like a failure when he can’t get it up. And it doesn’t help that some guys are already dealing with problems like depression in the first place — which can lead to a vicious cycle of ED and mental health issues.
When medical professionals talk to a man about his sex life, they tend to forget that there’s a human being behind the biological and chemical problems that he may be experiencing. In all the talk of blood vessels, heart disease, the side effect risks of medication and men’s health in general, it’s easy for doctors and nurses to forget the embarrassment element of ED treatment.
No man likes to consider the possibility that he may not be able to perform in an intimate situation. After all, your manhood is a significant part of your identity. But clinical terminology and treatments often negate the equally important mental health side of things.
And that’s why the most important thing for everyone involved to understand is that it’s not his fault, your fault or anyone else’s fault.
Erectile dysfunction is a condition in which the proper erectile function of a man’s penis is interrupted, prevented or fizzles out because of insufficient blood flow. It’s caused by any number of things, from poor habits to certain diseases and health conditions. Even a man’s mental health can cause ED.
Painting a portrait of the ED experience isn’t difficult, but painting a portrait of the person who has ED is a lot harder than you might expect. Many men experience ED — at many ages. A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests that one out of every four new patients with ED is under the age of forty.
Many men are likely to experience erectile issues at some time in their life, and those who repeatedly find themselves flaccid can end up with self-esteem issues, performance anxiety and other long-term effects on their mental health. And guess what? Science says these can exacerbate or cause ED in and of themselves.
Point being, there are a number of reasons for losing an erection, including:
Heart disease and other health conditions that affect blood flow
Hormone imbalances that affect testosterone levels
Medications and recreational drugs with unintended side effects on sexual health
Weight and obesity problems
A lack of sleep or exercise
And those are just the long-term factors for ED. Now we have to look at the day-to-day triggers.
Even if your partner has never experienced ED in your presence (or anyone else’s) before, there are several ways ED can be triggered simply by something like a really bad day.
Common examples of short-term ED triggers include:
Stress. Not only can stress keep you from focusing on the situation at hand, but it actually triggers the release of chemicals in the brain that can prevent you from achieving an erection. If you’ve had erectile issues in the past, performance anxiety in future encounters can be a source of stress in and of itself.
Alcohol. While having a drink or two may relax you and lower your inhibitions, drinking too much might prevent you from performing sexually. You may also find that alcohol contributes more significantly to erectile issues as you get older.
Fatigue. Sometimes your body is simply too tired for sex. Fatigue can not only decrease your ability to perform sexually, but it may also lower your desire for sex – this is particularly true if you typically have sex at night.
Drugs. Many over-the-counter medications like cold medicine, pain relievers and sleep aids can contribute to short-term ED, as can prescription drugs for blood pressure, depression or anxiety. Read the fine print on the packaging to see whether a drug you are taking could be contributing to your ED. By the way, this also includes tobacco, which has been clearly linked to ED in many studies.
Inexperience. Sometimes an inability to perform is simply a matter of experience. If you aren’t familiar with using condoms or if you are still learning about what you do and don’t enjoy in a sexual setting, it can deflate your erection. Like anything in life, sex takes time and practice.
Let’s get real for a second, because there’s an absolute truth in all of this that you and your partner need to recognize. The truth is that ED is no one’s fault.
While you may be quick to point to any number of ways these potential causes seem preventable, the fact is that no guy chooses — willingly or unwittingly — to have ED. Furthermore, nobody can cause ED in a way that would delineate “fault.”
Argue with us if you want, but at the end of the day your guy going flaccid has nothing to do with whether or not he’s attracted to you, and he’s not causing his own ED by neglecting his sexual health or mental health.
This is a blameless condition — it just happens. How do we know this? Because not a single study of ED patients showed any of them being “happy” or “satisfied” with their lack of erectile function.
ED isn’t a blame game — it’s a problem to solve and requires teamwork.
Now that we’re on the same page, you should know that, even though you’re not at fault, there are some things that you and your partner can do to potentially solve the problem together.
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While many men become defensive when something upsetting happens, others like to pretend it never happened at all. Neither of these strategies are good.
If your partner internalizes his feelings and acts like the problem never occurred, solving the problem might be a non-starter. That’s why communication is the first and most important step here.
Eventually, your man needs to talk to his healthcare provider to get diagnosed and figure out the right treatment options, which may include:
Dietary and lifestyle changes.
Before, during and after that, however, there are a number of things you both can do to avoid embarrassment, deal with the problem and build trust:
Try not to panic. ED is a treatable condition, and it may even be short-lived. Panic only leads to anxiety, which may make things temporarily worse.
Have a conversation about it. Talk to your partner about what’s going on, normalize it and remember not to place or suggest blame. Support will only help him get treated faster.
Don’t internalize any negative feelings. Nobody is to blame, you are not unattractive and he is not rejecting you. In short, ED has nothing to do with your partner’s opinions of you. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can return to being an ally and begin dealing with ED in a relationship.
Be patient. Medication may take time to work. Therapy may take time to work. Getting the courage to go talk about the problem with a healthcare provider may take him time. While you very well may be back to great sex the next morning, it might not be so simple, so remember to be kind.
ED sucks for both the man experiencing it and for his partner. Not only can it damage his relationship, but it can also damage his self esteem and his sense of self worth.
Instead of closing yourself off (or letting him do so), offer support and gently talk to him about what’s going on.
This may be the first time and may be the last time — occasional ED isn’t necessarily a sign of anything other than stress or fatigue.
If he’s struggling repeatedly with ED, erectile dysfunction treatments, including medication and online therapy with a sex therapist, are available to him. We even make discreet chewable ED meds hard mints for guys who want a minty-fresh bit of foreplay on hand.
Remember that simple changes to your intimate times might help. New sex positions or sex toys like vibrators make more than the spice level go “up.” And they can help you enjoy things even if he’s not getting hard enough to penetrate.
If nothing else, just remember to show them love, compassion and support. That’s what sex is about anyway, right?