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Keeping Love Alive

What to do when impotency impacts your marriage.

Flip open a magazine, turn on your television, or go online, and sooner or later you'll be confronted with an ad, commercial, or e-mail for Viagra, that "little blue pill" that enhances sexual performance. Although marketing for drugs to overcome sexual dysfunction crops up everywhere, the topic remains a sensitive one. And for couples struggling with impotency, it's a very real and heartbreaking problem. In a recent poll on our website (Todays ChristianWoman.com), we asked how many of you have dealt with this issue in your marriage. To our surprise, 46 percent responded "yes" to this informal survey. We hope this candid story will provide insight and comfort to others in the same situation.—The Editors

What happens if sex is suddenly removed from the marriage equation?

Fourteen years ago, that happened to us. At 47, my husband, Phil*, lost his ability to perform sexually. Years of medications for Type 1 diabetes and poor blood-sugar control had combined to take away this one area of marriage that had refreshed our love regardless of life's circumstances. At 46, I no longer could have sex with my husband.

Initially, Phil's ability to maintain an erection became briefer. He mentioned this change to his physician, who explained how diabetes affects blood flow to the body's extremities, including during sexual arousal. He mentioned we could consider medical options such as the use of a vacuum device, injections, or a penile implant. Since we still were able to have a measure of sexual satisfaction, we chose to ignore what we perceived as mechanical intrusions into our lovemaking. Several more months passed—then came the night when Phil was completely unable to have intercourse.

After several more failed attempts, we talked awkwardly about the devices Phil's physician had mentioned. We both superficially reacted with comments about how silly we'd feel using them. We hadn't learned to communicate honestly about our deep sorrow over the impending loss of our sex life. In retrospect, perhaps we dismissed professionally assisted treatments too quickly, and we certainly wouldn't rule them out for others dealing with erectile dysfunction, or ED.

Contrary to contemporary society's sexual opinions, married love still can be intimate, fulfilling, and special apart from the actual sex act.

Phil soon began avoiding any sensual contact with me because it brought his sense of loss to the forefront. If he kept a safe distance from me, he figured he wouldn't have to face his inability to finish something he might have started. I mistakenly interpreted this lack of touch as a sign of his losing all sexual interest in me. I began to feel more like Phil's sister than his wife. While Phil's avoidance strategy protected him, at first it brought nothing but painful rejection to me as a woman. I felt isolated.

But the longer we've lived with impotency, the more I've realized Phil and I are hardly alone. According to Mayo Clinic statistics, more than half of men age 50 and older with diabetes experience some degree of ED. Other diseases that can affect performance include prostate cancer and nerve disorders such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and multiple sclerosis. Just when many married couples finally come to a place of unreserved love and deep affection for their mate, having weathered numerous life storms, sex stops.

The reality is, impotence respects no age group. According to the Federal Drug Administration, more than 30 million men between the ages of 40 and 70 experience some form of impotency. Erectile dysfunction also can be rooted in psychological stresses as well as side effects from medications used to treat a number of illnesses, including hypertension, heart conditions, and depression.

As Phil worked through his own struggle, he concluded that for many men, their perception of male significance, apart from their standing in Christ, comes from two earthbound sources: their ability to earn money and their sexual performance. Both these areas carry with them physical and psychological gratification. Times of unemployment can be just as devastating to concepts of masculinity as impotency. A man feels unneeded, even if the job loss wasn't predicated on his performance. He inwardly labels himself a failure. Being impotent carries with it similar psychological baggage.

One night, during those early months of Phil's impotence, I so longed to be intimate with him that I quietly left our bed and went into the living room. Curled in a favorite chair I often used for solitary prayer, I wept at our loss of physical union. I genuinely grieved over the death of a vital part of our marriage and my life as a sexually active woman. I formed a prayerful question: "Why, God, would you invest so much in our marriage, teaching us so much about gracious love, only to allow the very expression of that love to be taken away?" I heard no answer from heaven that night other than a subsiding of my sexual desire for Phil.

I made many nighttime visits to my prayer chair after Phil fell asleep. One night, when the physical and emotional urge for sex was almost overwhelming, I earnestly pleaded for the gift of celibacy. Celibacy is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. The apostle Paul mentions it in 1 Corinthians 7 while writing of the mutual responsibilities of marital sex. He claims his own celibacy as a "gift" from God. I now understood the uniqueness of wanting that gift all too well.

God often has allowed me a solitary struggle through difficult life challenges until I experience him as truly sufficient to meet all my needs — then he allows humans to participate more fully. Such was the case in learning to accept this particular loss. Philippians 4:12-13 ministered healing and courage to me: "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. … I can do everything through him who gives me strength." This became my song in the night. Contentment comes when you embrace the truth that the supernatural strength of Jesus Christ is effectual in all things.

As we experienced help from God in the area of physical yearnings, Phil and I also began seeing a wonderful Christian counselor who helped us to keep our marriage relationship satisfying. Her greatest contribution was helping us to communicate more specifically about our emotional needs within our marriage.

As Phil and I became more open about our situation, we decided to revisit medical possibilities to treat his impotency. Following the Federal Drug Administration's approval of the impotency drug Viagra in March 1998, a physician suggested Phil might sample a pill. (According to Pfizer, the drug's manufacturer, more than 16 million men have used Viagra worldwide since it was approved by the FDA, and today new medications such as Levitra and Cialis are on the market as well.) We hadn't had intercourse for eight years, and smiled at the possibility that this heavily advertised "wonder pill" might allow us to revisit our earlier passions. But before we tried it, Phil suffered a massive heart attack. While Viagra has been given successfully to some men, it isn't safe for everyone. Men with serious cardiac conditions are strongly advised not to use Viagra. The medical mixture can lower their blood sugar dangerously and lead to fatal cardiac complications. Another option—that of self-administered intraurethral therapy—could include pain, dizziness, and the formation of fibrous tissue. Deciding against these options now was based upon legitimate concerns about Phil's other health issues rather than sheer embarrassment or relational awkwardness.

This disappointment wasn't even bitter because God had so faithfully brought us each to a place of inner acceptance and contentment.

Does impotency spell the end of marital intimacy? The answer, Phil and I have discovered, is a resounding "no." I observed something wonderful one night at my parents' home, where I was staying to help out during my 82-year-old father's battle with congestive heart failure. My parents were slowly walking down the hallway to their bedroom, Dad's arm draped over Mom's shoulder as he leaned heavily on her for support. Mom firmly encircled his diminishing waist with both arms and rested her head on his side. Now that's love, I thought. That's intimacy, and it's beautiful.

As Phil and I turned to God for continued help in finding an intimate, fulfilling marital relationship without intercourse, the physical yearnings subsided. I can't point to a day or hour, but I just knew the struggle was over. When I look at Phil during a tender moment now, sexual arousal isn't an issue; I simply feel a warmth and gratefulness that he's my husband. His near-fatal heart attack put our love for each other in an even more nonphysical perspective. I saw the depths of his passion for me reflected in his eyes as he grasped my hand before entering the ambulance. I am so loved and cherished.

We've discovered some vital elements of a satisfying marriage that transcend the sex act itself.

Touching. Affectionate touching is a hallmark of healthy sexual and nonsexual marital relationships. Eventually, I felt comfortable sharing my need to feel like a wife rather than a sister to Phil. He then became much more generous with his hugs. While the most precious lingering hugs never had the same intensity of the sex act, they helped tremendously in restoring my feelings of attractiveness and femininity. There isn't a time when one of us enters our home that the other doesn't rise with a greeting of hugs and gentle kisses.

Kissing. I easily recall Phil's good-night kisses during our courtship. Moonlight etched our shadows on the back porch steps … until my father blinked the porch lights as a warning for me to come inside! Many married women have confided in me over the years about how they miss tender kissing and caressing in their relationship with their husband. Too often the sex act itself replaces affectionate foreplay. Happily, in our case, moonlight porch kissing has made a comeback! Again, this isn't as fulfilling as taking the next step toward expressing our love—but we've learned to be content.

Talking. This crucial element of a healthy relationship is essential in preserving marital intimacy. "I wish he'd talk to me" is an all-too-typical complaint I hear as a pastor's wife. Impotency can painfully shut off verbal as well as physical intimacy, or with God's help, it can open areas of communication that previously were buried in the busyness of life, including sex. We've dared to talk out difficult feelings rather than allowing them to simmer dangerously below the surface, which can cause unnecessary suffering and anxiety. As mentioned earlier, our initial hesitancy to communicate honestly about our problem may have caused us to dismiss professional help too easily.

To this day, Phil occasionally confides that he feels he's let me down as a husband, not just because of the impotency, but now also because he's unable to work at a full-time position due to his heart condition. As much as I needed him in those early years to reaffirm my femininity and the fact that he still desired me, it's now my calling to reaffirm him. It breaks my heart when he doubts for even a moment how proud I am of his courage and faith in the midst of his physical suffering and health limitations. Phil is in every sense of the word a man. And I never grow weary of telling him so.

Contrary to contemporary society's sexual opinions and erotic obsessions, married love still can be intimate, fulfilling, and special apart from the actual sex act. There still are times when I mourn not being able to express love by the joining of our bodies … a joy denied relatively early in life. But diabetes and heart disease can't rob Phil and me of true marital intimacy unless we allow it. There is life after sex; by God's grace, our love will continue to satisfy us with deep, quiet joy.

Amy Swanson is a pseudonym for a freelance writer living in Wisconsin.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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