When Your Partner Can’t Get It Up

How to respond well in an emotional situation.

Posted May 15, 2020

Erectile problems are more common than most people think—and definitely more common than most folks want to admit. As much as the guy having trouble getting it up can go through his own private hell, it can also be really hard to be the other person in bed. It can be hard to know how to react and really easy for your insecurities to run wild. Let’s talk about what to do when your guy can’t get it up, and also a few things to definitely not do.

When a guy can’t get it up, it could be a combination of physical and psychological reasons. Generally speaking, older guys are more likely to have some physical involvement that makes it harder to get a solid erection in all sexual encounters, whether with a partner or alone. Younger guys are more likely to do great when on their own, but have problems in some or all of their partnered encounters. When everything works in some encounters but not others, often anxiety is the culprit and it can create a negative expectation death spiral that kills erections in no time when the guy psychs himself out. One or two bad experiences and now he is convinced that it will never work again, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wrote a post a while ago (Erectile Disorder: Not the End of the World) on what the guy can do, but this post is for the partner whose fun time just took a sudden detour.

Yes, You’re Hot Enough

The first, easiest place to go when the guy you’re with can’t get it or keep it up is that the problem is that you’re not hot enough or that your technique isn’t good enough. Unless the guy actually tells you this, don’t go there. Freaking out on your insecurities, while he’s also freaking out, will only make a bad situation worse. The problem isn’t you. Sex doesn’t always go as planned. Doing your best to stay calm will make you a more effective part of the solution. This is pretty good relationship advice overall, by the way.

 123RF
Source: 123RF

Don’t Blame Porn (Or Compare Yourself)

Porn doesn’t give guys erectile problems. Neither does masturbation, unless it was recently enough that he’s still in his refractory (reloading) period. Bringing porn into this discussion will just be a distraction from what’s really going on. If your guy has no trouble keeping it up when watching porn but then has trouble with you, it’s because there is no performance pressure when he’s on his own (which may be why he prefers solo activities over partnered). Assuming everything is functional enough physically, then it all works well when there’s no anxiety. The images flickering on the screen don’t judge, so he’s comfortable and things work as they should. However, being with a real person can make it feel really important to perform well which can ironically make it more likely that things don’t work. Anxiety and erections can’t coexist, so worrying about his performance will suck the wind out of his sails. If he notices some partial softening and then panics, it’s game over. If you don’t like that he watches porn, then that is a separate discussion to have, but don’t muddy these already emotional waters by bringing porn into it. For more on how to have a productive conversation about porn, check out Agreeing About Porn.

Keep Your Own Head On

If your guy can’t get it up or loses it in the midst of things, he will likely start freaking out, worried about what you are thinking about him. He may even go so far as to worry that he is a failure, that this doesn’t happen to anyone else, or that it will never get better and he is doomed to a life of celibacy. When one person in a couple is losing it, it’s really helpful if the other one can hold it together. You may want to change up what you’re doing so that his missing erection isn’t a problem and try to distract him from the mental death spiral. If he can focus again on the erotic aspects of what is happening, his erection will return. Try talking dirty, telling him what you want to do next or what about him really turns you on. If he is really spinning, maybe just hold him and reassure him that you’re both OK. If he needs some space, let him have it, but don’t let him avoid the topic forever. Tense, self-conscious silence, or avoiding sex never makes this better.

 123RF
Source: 123RF

Talk About What to Do If It Happens Again

Some guys would rather do almost anything than talk about their missing erection, but it can be really helpful to have a direct conversation about it. Talking normalizes it and reduces the shame, especially if you can keep your head on. It also allows the two of you to agree on a few options of what to do if it happens again. Just knowing that you have a list may actually make things work better because it reduces the performance pressure. It may also be really helpful to have a conversation about how he can best get you off, especially if you are a woman since most women are less likely to orgasm from intercourse than from more direct clitoral stimulation. In other words, he doesn’t need an erection, but he does need a good attitude which is probably the most important thing to ask for. Knowing that he has options may reduce some of his performance pressure of feeling like the success of the encounter all hangs on his ability to keep it up. This may also benefit you both by giving you more options, even when his erections work as expected. Couples with a more flexible approach to sex tend to be happier.

This is Bigger Than Just Sex

Erectile difficulties can be very treatable for many and can be adapted to for most. But they can also torpedo a couple’s sex life and both partners’ self-esteem. As the partner, you have the ability to influence where this goes. Let him know that the missing erection isn’t the problem—it’s the freaking out, withdrawing, avoidance, and/or anger. I’m not implying that this will be easy for you and it will almost certainly be more difficult for him, but the folks who have the best sex are secure enough in themselves to be honest with their partner and able to hear their partner’s honesty. If the two of you can handle this situation well, you will then also be better able to handle all sorts of other situations well.