‘My husband hasn’t had a proper erection in three years.’

A reader whose husband has erectile dysfunction contacted us this week. She felt lost and lonely and needed help. She asked to not be identified and told her story to Shelly Horton in the hope of getting answers and helping others. This is what she wrote …

I have an embarrassing secret – and feel like I am living a lie… My ‘problem’ is not mine, but somehow has become ALL mine and is impossible to discuss with anyone. You see, my husband, who is a blokey-bloke, hasn’t had a full or proper erection for three years. I fear he is impotent, and when he does eventually get ‘there’ it lasts very briefly.

Our story is quite suburban and normal (whatever that means). We have been married 15 years (we have two kids, who are teenagers), a dog and cat. We’ve had the usual ups and downs including a huge mortgage and bills; each week is a struggle financially, but that is not the real issue. We are managing and our private school educated kids have never gone without, so I don’t want to focus on the money issue.

We are both almost 50. Our issue can be summed up in one three-letter word: SEX. The problem is, my libido really hasn’t changed at all. Even during both pregnancies I wanted it (he didn’t), and if anything my desire has increased as our kids are pretty much off our hands with their busy social and sporting lives. I have always had a healthy sexual appetite, and enjoyed wonderful healthy sex with previous partners, but my husband’s has decreased and diminished over the years. Particularly over the past three years.

To be honest, I think a lot of it is he is tired and can't be bothered. Sex is not on his radar. He works long hours and all his energy goes into work. He is very old school with his work ethic: up early and off to work, puts in a hard day, and regularly works extra hours. At night he is tired, just wants to eat dinner, and go to bed. To sleep.

The other (embarrassing) detail is that I have always instigated anything in the bedroom - and I mean I have always initiated things. I can not tell you the last time he started anything.  At least 10 years ago, when our son was about two, would be the last time. Please believe me when I say I have tried many many things - talking, turning him on, weekend’s away, Viagra, etc.  I have suggested counselling, hired porn DVDs, and really, nothing has worked.

I may cry telling you this, but here's an example of what happens: A couple of weekends ago we were child free unexpectedly. We got to Saturday afternoon, where I thought, 'Here is an opportunity for together time!' I drew the curtains, set the mood, got some champagne from the fridge and asked him to come into the bedroom. He was outside.

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Him: "What are you doing?" Me: "I thought we could get it on." (or words to that effect) Him: "But I’m mowing the lawn, I've got stuff to do outside." Me: "Don’t worry about it, fuck the lawn - do it later." Him: "I’m not in the mood now." Me: "Well, let's get in the mood, it won't take long, let's have a bit of fun – there are no kids here, we can relax, we can make noise..." Him: "No, not into it now. Maybe later."

Then he walked away and went back outside. I sat on the bed, cried, and got up and got dressed, and I probably went and vacuumed. That rejection happens a lot.

I can say that when we do finally get there, he is attentive to me (you know what I mean) and I have no complaints there.  It is good ... but 'closing the deal' doesn’t happen. He's not hard, so it's literally an anti-climax. We are way passed the point of saying, "Oh well, it happens to men sometimes".

He really doesn't say anything and I'm sure he is embarrassed. I am frustrated and usually change the subject. It took a long time for him to even agree to Viagra.He would yell, and get angry and defensive when I brought it up. "There’s nothing wrong with my dick!" Finally I insisted on going to the doctor with him when he went for a check up. I had to bring the conversation up. It was excruciating in the doctor’s room. The doctor got my drift, or my general look of desperation, and he prescribed it. Weeks later (he wouldn’t get the prescription filled), we tried it.  Anyway, it works, sort of.  It's still not 100 per cent hard, but better than nothing, so I certainly wanted him to use it again. I even suggested he take two tablets (which he did on one occasion) and it sort–of worked again.

The big issue is that he will barely discuss it with me. Naturally, he is very defensive, saying there is nothing wrong with his dick and won't acknowledge it. He's a very old school Aussie male, raised in country Queensland, where men were men and traditional roles maintained. He doesn’t acknowledge it (he is a caveman emotionally). There was one occasion where he said, "Oh, I've lost my hard-on". But he didn't do anything about it, and I think we just went to sleep. Sadly (and yes, I am desperately sad, although very angry too) it has become a big issue in our marriage. There is now so much pressure about the sex that we are NOT having! I find myself looking at other men all the time, wishing I could have an affair just for the sex.

I think I am a relatively attractive woman for my age, and want to be attractive for him. I wax regularly, keep fit, go to the hairdressers, try to maintain some personal style and sexiness. The strange and awfully ironic thing is that when I speak to most of my close girlfriends they don’t seem to want sex, and have no desire to have sex, unless it's a 'special occasion' like birthdays or Christmas.  Maybe I am speaking to the wrong women. I really don’t know what to do… and can't see myself spending the next 20 years with someone and not having good sex again.

Shelly Horton then spoke to relationship psychologist John Aiken about this situation to get some advice.

If she's having thoughts of having an affair, she needs to get herself to a counsellor immediately. Forget about the husband for now and go and speak to a professional fast.

It's important to not make decisions now that she will regret. They can put together a plan of action that will stop her going down that path because if she is unfaithful, she'll never be able to take it back. Impotence is a difficult issue but it can be managed. She's been trying to overcome the problem without any tools or knowledge.

A psychologist or relationships counsellor can give her those tools.  Just don't go outside the marriage, because it adds another level of stress to an already stressful situation. There is a chance they can turn it around and save their marriage. I think she's got to realise that impotence hits at the very core of a guy's masculinity.  He wants to be virile and strong, so to not be able to get it up is a real blow to his self-worth.  There's a stigma of being a strong Aussie bloke - he may not have the communication skills that she's got. How he was brought up, and his role models, will all come into how well he can manage any issue in a relationship. He may do what he's always done and lock it inside.

If he doesn't like to open up and be vulnerable, he will carry all that anxiety in his head. Of course he doesn't want to talk about it, because there's a sense on shame about it all.  She has to try to get into his head space, and it's important to only discuss it in a very delicate way. The problem is rather than reaching out and dealing with it as a team, he becomes ashamed and he retreats and withdraws. Then she may try to reach out for a certain amount of time but he doesn't accept, so she will withdraw as well.  Then the relationship loses the connection, the intimacy and the teamwork.  When you shut it down and there's silence, it becomes a monster in your relationship. It's such a difficult issue but five things need to be addressed first;

1. Is it a medical issue?

Just prescribing Viagra is not a solution. Tests need to be done. Some medications can have the side effect of impotence.

2. Are there major stresses?

Job insecurity, money concerns, a falling out with a friend - any of these can lead to problems in the bedroom. Look at triggers - did something happen three years ago when it started?

3. Are you having relationship issues?

How do you treat each other outside of the bedroom.  Do you get quality time together?

4. Is he maintaining a healthy lifestyle?

It's important he's eating well, getting enough sleep and not drinking too much.

5. Seek counselling.

See someone who has the skills to address this in a safe place. I'm sure she'll be feeling out of control and helpless. One way of encouraging him to see a counsellor together is to let him know it's impacting her.  If she says: "'I'd like to talk to a counsellor together - it would help me to deal with it because we are in a state of crisis. It's our issue. I've got your back and I'm here to support you. It's something we can overcome together." All time it has to be "WE" not "HE".  It's about working it out together not blaming him. If he resists counselling she can certainly get support for herself.  She should see someone who specialises in area of sex. You can create change. A counsellor will give you options on how to more forward. They might be able to give her some particular strategies. It creates a ripple effect, as she changes, the couple starts to change.

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