Monday, May 25, 2015 at 6:43 am
Throughout her marriage, Celia Greene’s(*) sex life had been very satisfying. When friends confided their bedroom problems, it was difficult for her to relate. Then, last year, her husband, Stephen,(*) 41, lost his job–and his ability to have an erection. It was the first real crisis in their seven-year marriage: “We were too embarrassed to talk about it much,” recalls Celia, 38, who lives in Mamaroneck, NY. “I think we just thought it would go away.”
Instead, the problem became a silent plague in their relationship. “In every other way we kept functioning,” she says. “We looked like a happy couple, and sometimes we even felt like one. But under the cheerfulness, there was definitely a lack of fulfillment.”
Stephen landed a new job within a few months, but by then the couple’s sex life had deteriorated so badly that they were finding excuses not to go to bed at the same time. It took a routine question from her gynecologist for Celia to realize how serious the situation had become. “She just asked, `And how’s your sex life?,’ and I burst into tears.”
Impotence, or “erectile dysfunction,” as it’s known in the medical community, can profoundly alter any couple’s relationship. And the latest figures indicate that the problem is widespread: About half of all men between the ages of 40 and 70 report experiencing consistent difficulty getting or maintaining an erection.
What really causes impotence? Expert opinion has swung back and forth. Not long ago, psychological problems, such as Celia’s and Stephen’s, were thought to be the main culprit. But now, the disorder is largely portrayed as a medical condition. Indeed, recent research shows that some cases can be traced to inadequate blood flow to the penis–due to hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Result? An avalanche of drug treatments, including injections and pills (see “The Latest Remedies,”).
Not surprisingly, some psychologists and sex therapists (most of whom, it should be noted, can’t prescribe medications) are criticizing the new emphasis, because it seems to ignore the interpersonal side of sex. Even some urologists are concerned. “Despite the fact that these medications are often effective at producing erections, they don’t always produce a satisfactory sexual relationship,” notes Drogo K. Montague, M.D., director of the Center for Sexual Function at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “For example, when sexual dysfunction is associated with marital problems, treating the dysfunction alone is absolutely fruitless.”
When a man loses his ability to make love, his partner loses something too. She may feel cheated, confused, or guilty–feelings impotence drugs can’t address. However, “if these problems are dealt with early enough,” says psychologist Joel D. Block, Ph.D., author of SEcrets of Better Sex, “they can sometimes be resolved through good communication and cooperation.”
Keep in mind, even the most loving couple will occasionally encounter an uncooperative penis–especially in the face of stress. But if an erection problem persists beyond three months or worsens, your husband should see a urologist. That’s particularly important if he has any major risk factors for impotence, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease, or if he’s a heavy smoker or has recently begun taking 2 new medication. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that the two of you will be able to revive his sexual response home Her the best advice from physicians and sex therapists:
DON’T ASSUME THE WORST. Is this a sign that he’s fallen out of love with you? Is your marriage over? Not likely. “Often an impotent man is happy with his marriage, but not with his life, and that’s showing up in his penis,” says psychologist Fred Cavaiani, a marriage counselor and consultant for the Detroit Medical Center’s Institute for Women’s Medicine. “To a surprising extent, much of the way people respond sexually has to do with how they feel about themselves. If your husband thinks he’s not performing well at work, he may also find it difficult to perform well in the bedroom.”
ACCEPT THAT IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. Your first reaction is probably, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not turning him on? Don’t take it personally, stresses Roger T. Crenshaw, M.D., a psychiatrist and sex therapist based in San Diego. “Your husband’s erection is not your responsibility,” he says. “If you start taking responsibility, You’re going to end up feeling guilty and alienated”–hardly the feelings that will help you be a supportive spouse.
START TALKING. “Couples with this problem usually endure a lot of painful silence, which only reinforces the notion that something is terribly, irreversibly wrong,” notes Bruce S. Liese, Ph.D., a professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, KS. “To overcome erection problems, a couple must openly communicate and continue to demonstrate their love and affection.” Diffuse your husband’s anxiety with words like, “I know you’ve been under stress lately.” Then offer to share the burden by saying, “Whatever the problem is, I’m sure we can overcome it because we love each other.”
FOCUS ON PLEASURE, not performance. Stop equating sex with intercourse. Enjoy being aroused while cuddling, give each other back rubs, or kiss without touching below the belt. You’ll satisfy both his and your needs for skin contact, and you’ll reinforce the notion that sex can focus on sensual sharing, and not just performance.
GIVE LOTS OF PRAISE. “Positive feedback is a better teacher than silence or complaints,” says Venture, CA psychologist Gil McFarlane, Ph.D., author of Return to Loving: The Self-Treatment Program for Erection Problems. For example, tell your partner, as eloquently or as explicitly as you want, how great it feels when he touches or kisses you. “is will stimulate his most important sexual organ-his brain-and give him renewed confidence as a lover.
BE ADVENTUROUS. Distract your husband from his worries by doing something inventive, even a little dangerous: Make out in the car, just like you did when you were teenagers. “Don’t expect it to `work’; just expect it to be fun,” advises Liese.
SET THE ALARM AN HOUR EARLIER. After a good night’s sleep, blood vessels in the penis will be relaxed. “This primes a man for a positive sexual response,” explains Jeremy Heaton, M.D., a urologist at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. A word of caution: Never leave sex for the end of a hectic day, as many two-career couples do.
GO AWAY TOGETHER. Every sex therapist has a story to tell about how, after months of seemingly ineffectual treatment, a couple went on vacation and recaptured their passion. Of course, planning a sexual adventure is a sure way to fail. “The antidote is to say, `Let’s just go and have fun,'” says Liese. “If you don’t make it about sex, then the sex might just happen.”
CALL A PRO IF NECESSARY. Even if no medical cause of your husband’s impotence is uncovered, he may want to try an erection-inducing medication to reestablish his faith in his virility. The medication can also serve as a fallback–“like a parachute for people who have a fear of flying,” says Dr. Crenshaw. “If a man knows he has a backup system, ninety percent of the time he won’t need to use it.”
Techniques like these, along with lots of goodwill and patience, helped the Greenes overcome their 14-month bout with impotence. The turnaround began after Celia’s gynecologist urged her to take the lead and “let Stephen know you want to relate to each other sexually again.”
The couple recently celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary, and they’re happier than ever. “If you can get past something like this, which I really thought might wreck our marriage, you can get through anything,” says Celia. “We spent some horrible months isolated from each other, but working through the difficulties ultimately made us a more intimate team.”