MEN IN BED: WIDOWER’S SYNDROME
Lack of use leading to impotence. Watching William interact with his teenage kids, you would think he had everything. They appear to adore him and he seems happy and confident. But he’s going through a crisis of a kind he could never have anticipated.
Since his wife died two years ago, William has been completely focused on his two children and keeping his home running. He works when they are at school and again late at night. But he recently met a woman he liked very much. After courting her, however, he found to his absolute distress that he was impotent. This had never happened before. He had always been highly sexed and throughout his marriage his potency had never flagged.
Wiliam, aged forty-six, was suffering from widower’s syndrome – a kind of impotence associated with disuse. In the last year of his wife’s illness there had been no sexual intercourse and there had been none in the two years since her death. Widows syndrome is the corresponding syndrome in women. Symptoms include loss of libido and inorgasmia following prolonged periods without sex. It is well known to many doctors.
Men who suffer from this condition are usually over sixty and fear that age is the main cause of their difficulty. When it does affect younger men, they get equally anxious and worry they will be impotent forever.
Regardless of age, one unsuccessful attempt with a new partner may result in intolerable embarrassment and discouragement. The new partner is often much younger, and the episode can throw the man into a state of ‘mental’ impotence which later manifests itself physically. As men get older they tend to feel less sexually secure. This means that intimacy and trust with a new partner are critical factors, especially when the man has lost his former partner.
Fortunately, widower’s syndrome is treatable. Men’s anxiety about it is often allayed when the ‘disuse’ issue is explained.
Following that, it is important to rebuild confidence by excluding other possible causes of physical impotence, such as vascular or nerve deterioration. Some drugs can affect potency and these have to be checked for, too. Help from a counsellor may also be required.
Older men are surprised to hear what little difference age really makes. The only real difference is that an older man does not have a spontaneous erectile response when seeing a woman on a beach. However, he should have erectile activity with a partner beside him whether he is in his sixties, seventies or eighties.
Another side effect of ‘disuse’ is that it can lead to a lack of oxygenation of penile tissue. The tissue needs oxygen to stay healthy, and when a man has an erection, large quantities of blood and oxygen are brought into the penis. Without being aware of it, men have frequent erections during the night which oxygenate the tissue. As they age, however, these nocturnal erections decline and the penis gets less oxygen. ‘Disuse’ compounds this lack and can eventually lead to an inability to have an erection.
Depression following the loss of a spouse may also contribute to widower’s syndrome. Psychological factors combined with early stages of organic impotence in older men can impair their ability to perform. Younger men who are left to look after the home and children and earn the daily bread often find they have no opportunity, place, time or inclination for sexual activity. As a result they fall into ‘disuse’.
One man in his sixties, whose wife had been extremely ill, had gone without sex for close to two years. Since her death he had been in mourning and had had no sexual interest. Then he went on a cruise, met a woman and suddenly everything sprang to life. He got lots of erections in anticipation but when the moment of consummation arrived, nothing happened. This was most likely the result of a combination of ‘disuse’, anxiety and unresolved feelings for his late wife.
For many men, sex is an expression of an emotional connection and the desire for intimacy. Such men are more vulnerable to widower’s syndrome because they struggle to make the emotional transition to a new partner. Sometimes they need to be emotionally conditioned to make this transition before they are ready to have sex with a new partner, particularly if the previous loved partner died in sad or tragic circumstances.
The popular view that all men have the capacity to achieve and maintain erections under all circumstances should be well and truly buried. Men need the appropriate circumstances to be able to function in a satisfactory way.