Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/07/2021
Erectile dysfunction, or ED, is a common form of sexual dysfunction that affects about 30 million men in the United States alone. If you’re affected by erectile dysfunction, you may find it difficult to develop and maintain an erection firm enough for satisfying penetrative sex.
Because they tend to affect more than one person in a relationship, ED and sexual dysfunctions are often referred to as couple’s diseases.
When ED occurs in a relationship, it can cause everything from occasional sexual frustration to a loss of intimacy, ongoing stress and even concerns for your partner about their attractiveness and the strength of their connection with you.
These issues can potentially take a serious toll on your relationship if your erectile dysfunction isn’t actively treated.
Although ED can be highly frustrating to deal with, it’s a treatable issue. Today, medications are available to treat ED for most men. Making changes to your habits and lifestyle can also help to improve your erectile health and sexual performance.
Below, we’ve provided more information about what erectile dysfunction is and how it develops, as well as the effects it can have on your relationship.
We’ve also explained what you can do to deal with ED in a relationship, from talking openly with your partner to treatment options such as medication, lifestyle changes and more.
Erectile dysfunction is a very common condition, even for younger men. Data from men’s health studies shows that 40 percent of men experience occasional ED by the age of 40, with rates increasing at older ages.
A variety of factors can cause ED. It’s often associated with other health conditions, such as atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), hypertension (high blood pressure) or diabetes. In some cases, ED can be caused by psychological factors such as stress or anxiety.
When ED occurs in a relationship, it can have a serious effect on your sex life. Often, ED leads to the cessation of all sexual activity -- a change that may damage your connection with your partner and affect your relationship.
If you’re in a relationship and have ED, it’s important to talk openly with your partner and work together to make progress.
Erectile dysfunction is almost always treatable. You may be able to treat ED and improve your sexual performance using medication, healthy lifestyle changes or a combination of these things.
Erectile dysfunction is a condition in which you may find it difficult or impossible to develop and maintain an erection long enough to complete intercourse when sexually aroused.
ED can vary in severity. If you have ED, you may be able to get an erection sometimes, but not every time you want to have sex. Alternatively, you may find it difficult to maintain your erection for long enough for satisfying intercourse, or simply find it difficult to get an erection at all.
For some men, erectile dysfunction is a long-term problem. For others, it can be an occasional annoyance that comes and goes over time.
Although getting an erection usually seems simple, it’s a complicated process that involves your brain, nerves and cardiovascular system all working in tandem to control the flow of blood to the erectile tissue of your penis.
A variety of factors can affect this process, causing erectile dysfunction. These include physical health issues, psychological factors, certain medications and factors related to your lifestyle and day-to-day habits.
Physical causes of ED include diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis (MS) and others.
Certain physical injuries, including injuries that damage your nerves or the erectile tissue of your penis, may also contribute to ED.
Psychological causes of ED include depression, anxiety, worries about sexual performance, low self-esteem and feelings of guilt or concern about having sex.
Medications that may cause ED include antidepressants, blood pressure medications, appetite suppressants, tranquilizers, ulcer medications and medications that reduce your production of androgens.
Lifestyle factors and habits that may contribute to ED include a sedentary lifestyle, being obese or overweight, smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol excessively and using illicit drugs.
Sexual intimacy is an important part of a healthy, successful relationship. Since ED can have a negative effect on your ability to have satisfying sex with your partner, it’s a common source of stress and frustration for many couples.
The first step in dealing with ED in a relationship is understanding that it’s very much a couple’s disease that affects both partners.
While the effects of erectile dysfunction on men are generally obvious, fewer people are aware of the effects that ED can have on the female partner in a relationship.
A review published in Nature Reviews Urology, which looked at data from women with partners affected by ED, found that erectile dysfunction can cause a reduction in sexual desire, a loss of arousal and a reduced level of general life satisfaction.
The second step is understanding that you’ll likely be more successful at treating ED if you work together to understand what’s causing it and how you can overcome it.
The more you, as a couple, are able to work together, the better your results are likely to be.
Although the idea of talking about ED can feel embarrassing and uncomfortable, it’s important to communicate openly if erectile dysfunction is a problem in your relationship.
Openly communicating with each other can help to get rid of feelings of shame, embarrassment and frustration that often accompany ED.
If you’re the partner of someone with erectile dysfunction, talking only creates an opportunity to comfort them, let them know that it’s a normal issue and reassure them that having ED doesn’t make them any less attractive as a man.
If you’re the partner with ED, talking to your partner gives you an opportunity to let them know that they shouldn’t feel responsible, unattractive or rejected.
Our complete guide to talking with your partner about ED goes into more detail about the best ways to get over any awkwardness and have a constructive, valuable conversation about how you can deal with ED together.
During the conversation, you may want to discuss the factors that you think are contributing to you or your partner’s erectile dysfunction. These could be things like stress, lifestyle issues or recent changes that have occurred in your lives.
Regardless of the role you’re in, make sure to stay tactful, sensitive and focused on improving your relationship together.
Several different treatments are available for erectile dysfunction. Most of the time, ED can be treated using medication, either on its own or in combination with changes to your lifestyle and habits.
Several different medications are available for erectile dysfunction. These work by improving the flow of blood to the erectile tissue of your penis. This makes it easier to develop and maintain an erection when you feel sexually aroused.
ED medications belong to a class of drugs called PDE5 inhibitors. Currently, there are four main PDE5 inhibitor medications available for treating ED:
Tadalafil. The active ingredient in Cialis®, tadalafil is a long-lasting ED medication that provides relief for up to 36 hours per dose.
Vardenafil. The active ingredient in Levitra®, vardenafil typically provides relief from ED for slightly longer than sildenafil.
Avanafil. Available under the brand name Stendra®, avanafil is a newer medication that is fast acting and less likely to cause certain side effects.
We’ve talked more about how these medications work, their effects, side effects and more in our full guide to PDE5 inhibitors.
You can talk to a licensed healthcare provider online to learn more about ED medications and, if appropriate, receive a prescription to purchase ED medication online.
When ED is caused by a psychological issue such as stress, anxiety or depression, taking part in therapy may help to treat your symptoms and improve your sexual performance.
Several different forms of therapy are used to treat ED. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a form of therapy that involves identifying and changing unhealthy patterns of thought that may contribute to erectile dysfunction.
Research shows that CBT can improve erectile function and sexual satisfaction in men affected by ED.
Another form of therapy that’s used to treat ED is sex therapy. This type of therapy is designed to help you and your partner overcome sexual issues by talking about them and using practical, results-focused solutions to improve your sexual relationship.
Although medication is the most common option for treating erectile dysfunction, there are other steps that you and your partner can take if ED is a problem in your relationship. Make sure to:
Check for underlying medical conditions. Erectile dysfunction is often caused by underlying physical health issues such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
If you or your partner have ED and aren’t sure why it’s occurring, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider. They may suggest undergoing certain tests to see if a health issue is the root cause.
Most underlying conditions that cause ED can be treated using medication and lifestyle changes. Treating the underlying condition, either on its own or in combination with ED medication, may improve erectile health and sexual performance.
Exercise frequently. Research shows that regular aerobic exercise may have a positive effect on erectile health in men with ED.
If you live a mostly sedentary lifestyle, make an effort to work out more often. Try to work out with your partner. Doing this not only provides accountability -- it also gives you a fun activity that you can use to motivate and encourage each other.
Maintain a healthy body weight. Obesity is one of the most significant risk factors for erectile dysfunction in men. In fact, research shows that men who are obese are three times more likely to develop ED than men with a BMI in the normal range.
If you’re overweight or obese, try to lose weight. Just like exercising, this is something you can do as a couple by cooking together, working out and motivating each other to stay on track.
Stop smoking. The chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage your cardiovascular system, affecting the flow of blood to your penis and increasing your risk of developing erectile dysfunction.
If you smoke, try to quit. If you and your partner both smoke, make an effort to give up smoking together. Our guide to quitting lists actionable, science-based techniques that you can use to quit smoking for good.
If you or your partner has erectile dysfunction, it’s important not to panic. By communicating with each other and working together, it’s possible to treat erectile dysfunction and enjoy a satisfying, fulfilling sex life.
When ED becomes a problem, make an effort to talk openly with your partner without feelings of embarrassment, stress or awkwardness.
If you’d like to take action and treat ED, talk to a healthcare provider about treating erectile dysfunction. Depending on your needs and symptoms, treatment may involve using medication, talking to a therapist, making changes to your habits, or a combination of these steps.