By Hara Estroff Marano, published on December 31, 2007 - last reviewed on July 2, 2012
My husband and I are in our 50s and we've been married only five years. In the last few years he's suffered from erectile dysfunction (ED). He has normal testosterone levels but is a smoker and has fairly high cholesterol levels. He's tried sample medications but isn't interested in "taking a pill" to perform. Now our sex life is almost nonexistent and when it does occur he won't allow me to touch him intimately. What hurts the most is that he never touches me anymore. I am so starved for affection. I'd be content with just some closeness and touching but he says he feels absolutely no desire. Is there anything to be done?
No desire? It looks like there are multiple issues at play, and all of them are probably interacting in various ways to cause your husband to withdraw from interaction. It follows that they all need to be addressed, and in a variety of ways.
At the very least, your husband has plenty of company. "Men are so ashamed of speaking up about low sexual desire," observes Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage therapist from the Chicago area. It violates their sense of masculinity. But "low desire in men is America's best-kept secret," she says, and estimates that it affects at least 20 to 25 percent of men.
In any couple, really good sex is much more than mechanics, and it starts with a really good emotional connection between two people. That may be where you and your husband can start recovering his missing sex drive.
To begin with, affection has nothing to do with body parts and their functioning. However, these two separate elements of a relationship are conflated in your husband's mind. As a result, you are starving for much more than sex; you are starving for affection. For you, the lack of physical contact is experienced as the ultimate rejection. Your husband, too, is most likely starving for affection. You both need to feel wanted.
It would be most helpful if you could simply tell your husband this basic fact without making it sound as if it's a complaint about his sexual performance; he's already feeling bad enough about himself because of failure to get or maintain an erection. Erectile dysfunction can strike terror in the heart of a guy because his sense of self is usually tied up in his virility.
Choose a time that is not fraught with sexual overtones, and in a very loving voice that is the furthest thing from criticism that you can muster, tell him that you really miss feeling close to him and you would just love to hold him and cuddle together sometimes. It would be helpful if you could put a hand on his or in some other non-sexual and non-threatening way communicate affection while you are talking to him. You need to do this regardless of how much full-body contact you and your husband ever have, and regardless of how much erectile power your husband may recover.
Sex drive also has something to do with general health. It's important for you and your husband to know that smoking and high cholesterol can deliver a one-two punch to the delicate vascular system of the penis and dramatically interfere with erection.
It's not clear whether Viagra or similar drugs could help your husband regain function. That is a matter to take up with a doctor who specializes in such problems. But your husband's reluctance to continue to sully his body with such drugs is probably a stance he has taken to protect himself against the possibility that even such powerful drugs may not jump-start his penis—another failure that is superimposed on the erectile dysfunction itself, and which similarly cuts deeply into his sense of self.
Your husband is attempting damage control. To avoid encountering any possibility of intimacy—which ravages his sense of self—he has withdrawn entirely from contact. He likely doesn't intend to sacrifice the relationship; that is just a byproduct of his pain and his shame.
If it turns out that he cannot maintain an erection, with or without drugs, your husband needs to know that there is a great deal more to sex than penile penetration. Presumably he, too, has a body attached to his penis and is sensitive to and responsive to being touched all over his body. He needs to know that it is not necessary for him to cut himself off from all pleasure just because he can't get an erection. And it's even possible to completely satisfy a partner and bring her to orgasm without an erect penis. He does have two hands, doesn't he? Even one will do.
For some men, low sex drive has a lot to do with the women in their lives. Men today are often angry with their wives, and that is a great killer of desire. As one husband told Weiner-Davis: "My wife is so critical of me. She hurts my feelings. She finds fault in everything I do. I just don't want to be anywhere near her."
Instead of saying "I'd really like to spend more time with you," or "I really enjoy your company and the last time we went to a movie together I really had a good time," husbands more often hear: "You never want to do anything."
For most people, desire doesn't just happen by itself. It may be possible to get back closeness just be showing your husband some affection.