In Love

Friday, March 04, 2005

Question

I was really happy when my boyfriend finally allowed me to have a talk with him about his erectile problems. He said he was very happy with our sex life and didn't know why he frequently (more than 50% of the time) failed to get an erection. His doctor gave him a physical and said he was okay, then recommended Viagra or a similar medication. For the first two or three months after my sweetie got that prescription filled, things were great. But now we have gone back to this sad pattern of loving each other a lot but not really connecting with one another sexually. I wonder if there is something wrong with me. Is he afraid to tell me that he doesn't find me physically attractive? I don't think he's seeing someone else (who else would put up with this?). All kinds of crazy things go through my head. Is he gay? I don't want to end a relationship just because of sex, but I am really frustrated. Maybe you have heard of this problem before and can think of something that I have not.

Answer

What a heartbreaking situation! Unfortunately, it's a story I've heard from other couples who hoped that Viagra would overcome a physical problem that was sabotaging their love. When good medications for male erectile dysfunction or ED first became available, much was made of the idea that sex therapy was now defunct and irrelevant. (This overlooked the fact that ED is not the only male sexual dysfunction, and not every sexual difficulty is a male one.) It's now becoming apparent that some guys who are having trouble maintaining an erection need to take a look at the emotional underpinnings of having ED and the unhealthy patterns it may have reinforced in their thinking about sex and their relationships. Human sexual health is a complicated matter in which physiology, social learning or conditioning, individual values, the cultural context, and spirituality come together. Of course, we'd all rather take a pill than look at any of that other stuff; it's a time-consuming and potentially painful process.

Since I've only heard your side of this situation, I don't know a whole lot about what might be going on for your partner. Maybe he is gay. Perhaps he has fallen in love with another woman. It's more likely that he has a core sexual need that he's not comfortable revealing to you. He may be resenting you because of some nonsexual problem in the relationship like finances or how your side of the family is treating him. Maybe he is wrestling with depression or some other mental-health issue that saps his energy and makes sex a low priority.

Unfortunately, men are expected to keep a stiff upper lip, suck it up, and just work harder. He may be one of those men who not only don't want to talk about their feelings — they don't even know what they are! Depending on his personality, you have to decide if you should be gentle and nurturing or firm and confrontational. But he really does have to open up and talk to somebody — hopefully you as well as a trained professional — about the early messages he got about sexuality, his formative experiences with women, repressed issues with this relationship, stress from anxiety or depression that's destroying his libido, and any desires that he is hiding because he is ashamed of them.

In the meantime, try to stay physically close. Give each other massages. If intercourse isn't workable, use oral sex or manual stimulation to give one another as much gratification as possible. Incorporate sex toys into your lovemaking. If he doesn't want to do this, he's not just suffering from impotence — he's rejecting intimacy itself. But you are presumably a young and healthy woman whose sexual needs are as great as his own. You also need the love and reassurance that comes from being physically close to your lover and desired by him. He can't reasonably ask you to stay in this limbo forever.

If he would like to write in, I'd be happy to try to give him more personalized advice. In the meantime, I hope this general outline will give the two of you a foundation for starting some meaningful conversations about what's up. When two people love each other, they can deal with ED. This is a fixable problem, not something he (and you) have to suffer from forever.

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