Question 6-2021 from Madam

I have a question about a husband that may have an erectile disfunction. It’s something we don’t communicate about it. I just found some viagra pills in his draw. Things aren’t really spontaneous and have to always be planned. He finds away of blaming me at times and says that I don’t wear luring clothes and heels at night. But then my son goes to sleep late as he prays Isha salah in the masjid. So late at night I get tired and it becomes difficult to do gusl and a few hours later we have to pray fajr.

I noticed when I try to be dutiful and touch him late evening or be I try to be spontaneous he says let’s leave it now and do it later.

How do I overcome this problem?

Dear Madam,

We see a confluence of factors involving tiredness, bad timing, inconvenience and parenting issues that are preventing good quality couple time between the two of you. But these are not your biggest problem. It is actually your mutual lack of communication, manifested in you surmising his erectile dysfunction [ED] and him scapegoating you instead of mutually confiding and finding a solution together. Inevitably, to “overcome this problem” both of you need to improve your communication. You need civil but frank and non-judgmental conversations for our analysis to be of any help. In any case, because this is a one-way explanation, without the opportunity to clarify and confirm with you, we can only suggest some possibilities for you to consider, as a start.  Ultimately, we hope you will continue the journey with professional help from a qualified sex therapist, or at least a marital counsellor, to improve your communication and other marital issues.

The first possibility is that he is actually not suffering genuine ED. Men in or nearing middle-age can experience self-induced impotence largely triggered by the wide-spread myth of men’s everlasting sexual prowess. As a result, they get unnecessarily anxious when their erections now get a little slow, less distinct or last shorter. Then they start “comparing notes” with bluffing braggart friends, misleading advertisements or porn which always boast otherwise. Hence, the popularity of Viagra today is only a modern-day version of the age-old craze with aphrodisiacs and home-brewed sex-potions among ill-informed middle-aged men since time immemorial. It gets worse when they start blaming the wife for not being hot anymore which then trigger combative two-way blame-games. It is this anger, anxiety, fear, worry, embarrassment and negative vibes between them that is the real collective cause of his erection problem rather than his penis not working. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a man’s unfounded anxiety over his imagined impotence, is the real factor that usually causes it.

The second possibility is that when you “touch him late evening”, it is all about stimulating him enough for penile penetration in order to be “dutiful” to your husband’s sexual needs – and not because you particularly enjoy touching him so. Interestingly, it seems that he too is no longer turned on by your foreplay overtures, like he used to be in his younger days. Unfortunately, he is expressing it negatively, for example, by complaining about you not being in “luring clothes and heels at night” and by declining your spontaneous advances with excuses. You can respond negatively or instead see this as a common ground in your respective sexual perceptions, i.e both of you need more than the prospect of sex to be turned on for sex.

The third possibility is that you are getting tired of the “dutiful”, obligatory, routine kind of sex that married people are expected to have despite being fully aware of your respective conjugal responsibilities to each other. You may be surprised that there is actually an Islamically valid reason not to like this kind of sex. Conjugal responsibility is only a baseline duty of Muslim couples – we are not supposed to remain there forever. Ultimately, we are to strive beyond sex and procreation towards the higher purpose of holistic connection with our spouses through lovemaking. You can read about the Prophet’s views on this in our upcoming book Sex, Soul and Islam or our seminar lecture notes here. In a nutshell, he ﷺ threw light on how we humans shackle our potential to connect our hearts and souls through lovemaking by obsessing over genital penetration.  

For the fourth possibility, you have to explore it together with your husband. Just like you, he may have got tired of the same old sexual routine after all these years. But what both of you might not know, and should now consider, is that this could also be due to natural and positive changes happening to him. In middle-age, men’s testosterone levels decrease while estrogen levels increase naturally. Ill-informed men take this as a sign of dwindling virility and their anxiety trigger the self-induced impotence as explained above. But the men who accept and embrace these changes would discover new experiences of sex which is closer to what women experience, making him more empathic and hence more appealing to his lover.

Just one example: if in younger days erection is so easy, it now requires deliberate sustained stimulations – be it visual, imaginative, or through touch. Because now they need to, the positive thinking men would grow to appreciate and enjoy the kind of sensual pleasuring that women prefer in lovemaking like lengthy massages, caresses, erotic touches, perfumes, music, romantic settings and lots of love-talk which men in their younger days do not need to get turned-on.

This presents both of you with an opportunity to explore a new chapter in your sexual relationship which is closer to the Prophet’s insights in lovemaking. He ﷺ called for couples to avoid the hasty, direct route towards sexual intercourse as it tends to short-circuit the full spectrum of sensual and emotional pleasures from fully maturing as the sexual response cycle too often would hijack the human body to its climax quite soon after it starts – often hijacking the husband while leaving the wife “hanging”. On the other hand, sensual pleasures outside intercourse are more within human control to feel, enjoy, savour, and share with a sense of giving and taking of such pleasures as a form of gifts to each other.

In practical terms, it means that couples should just stop being hung up with sexual intercourse and instead focus on pleasuring each other sensually, emotionally, intellectually, imaginatively – or in other words: holistically. And, most importantly: not just as a preamble to sexual intercourse, but rather as an activity in its own right and to be enjoyed for its own sake even if it does not lead to intercourse. It should happen 24/7 wherever you are. It is about those non-sexual gestures to express concern, longing, hope, camaraderie, or simply to provide relief and really mean it. These are gestures that may not necessarily trigger sexual responses, but more so they are potent in touching the heart precisely because of it is non-sexual.

Hence, truly loving couples would hold hands, sling an arm over the shoulder, or stretch it across the waists as they walk down the street to express their closeness. They pat, stroke or squeeze each other’s hands, arms, shoulder or face in conversations over coffee to register their empathy or understanding. They talk nonsense, karaoke terribly, giggle and laugh with each other to find delight and comfort in each other’s voice. And at times all they need is to see that familiar smile to un-frazzle those tired minds after a long day at work. And when they have those private moments, they focus on pleasuring each other’s senses with lengthy massages, caresses, erotic touches, perfumes, music, romantic settings and lots of love-talk and put intercourse on the back burner. If it comes it comes, if it doesn’t it’s fine. This way, if it ever comes one fine day, it comes when both of them are ready, unforced, unrushed, and is hence deeply blissful.

You might belittle such simple gestures as obvious activities that married couples do anyway, but not if you have our experience with dysfunctional couples. You would know then that these are the few little things to disappear first from their daily interactions. Sadly, many too would place too much hope on bed-time sex to rescue their dry, feeling-less day-to-day interactions, never realising that it actually works the other way around; that is, without a heart-felt sensuous day-to-day exchanges, it is the sex that will be dry and emotionless; and then it would turn into a boring chore soon enough. You might well be experiencing this too as a couple.

This is our analysis of what you are experiencing as a couple. However, though you currently seem to be in a stalemate intimacy-wise, your potential common ground in sexual perception could possibly uplift both of you closer towards the holistic intimacy that the Prophet ﷺ advocated. Your immediate challenge is to communicate this wisely to your husband such that he would come on board with you in search of this ideal. We fully understand that even broaching this subject is a challenge, what more convincing him to seek professional help together. But in the end, whether you rely on therapy, counselling or do it yourself, you can’t solve this problem alone. Inevitably, you need to start discussing it with him and ultimately getting him on board. If all else fail, you can persuade him to read this reply as we have crafted it to make him see the potential that both of you currently have in your hands. Then, you would find that when you are united in purpose, together, those peripheral issues are easily solvable. To give you perspective on how they can potentially be addressed, we discuss the peripheral issues below:

Other ED causes: Having said all the above, there is also the possibility that his ED is genuine, for example due to chronic illnesses like severe hypertension, diabetes or heart problems, which is also quite common among middle-aged men. However, even if this were true, the medical approach can only address his genital inadequacy. To put it bluntly, if both of you cannot be intimate with each other, a chemically-induced stiff penis is not going to make it happen. Even if sex happens, it would be cold, mechanical, lifeless, possibly joyless for you and definitely meaningless to both of you. Inevitably, with or without medical assistance, you need to address how this ED issue is affecting your relationship – whether or not it is genuine or self-induced. On the other hand, if your approach to intimacy is the other way around, i.e through emotional and sensual pleasuring, it in itself engenders intimacy and yet would not jeopardise any medical intervention, if it were indeed truly needed.

Son’s late nights: Your son’s late nights from the mosque could be handled more assertively as parents. Your duty to prepare for his meals and daily needs should not extend to waiting on him at the expense of your private time with your husband. Respect of parents’ privacy is a Quranic teaching and must be instilled since childhood [check out verse Nur 24:58]. It becomes easier when your husband too is on board in this objective. If both of you agree on having an earlier bedtime before your son comes home from mosque, you can brief him on where he can find his dinner or other bedtime needs. You’d be surprised your son too might appreciate the independence you give him to look after himself past your preferred bedtime. In any case, he needs to learn to be independent.

Admittedly, we do not know exactly if your logistical situation allows you to do this. However, the bottom-line is your privacy as a married couple is an Islamic value that you must strive to normalise in your family. Sometimes it is a matter of ideas. If you are short on these, brainstorm with your husband, a trusted friend, your son, or alternatively, this is where the experience of a marital counsellor can come in handy. They are not just there to advice on matters of the heart. You’d be surprised the practical ideas they can offer you from years of handling other families’ problems. All you need is to open up to them, together as a couple.

Fatigue, ghusl and fajr: From your question, it appears that your fatigue is due to waiting on your son until late at night. You may be over-functioning as a mother at the expense of your couple-time, as we suggest above. However, we shall not pre-judge as we are not able to clarify on your situation. Due to this, we can only offer you a perspective for you to consider. Supposing waiting for your son is inevitable due to a very valid reason, still it should not deprive you of your couple-time either.

You said your son comes home late at night. This means you actually have long hours to talk, touch, take dinner, pray maghrib and isya, watch TV, or even play games, in fact do a lot of things together. Couple-time need not be confined to sexual activities in a locked bedroom after putting the kids to bed. Emotional and sensual pleasuring can happen through non-intimate activities, even with children in your company. Our problem today is modern gadgets that tend to distract our attention towards these gadgets rather than ourselves. But if as a couple, you are determined to improve your emotional connection, there are countless non-sexual activities that you can do together before bedtime.

Praying maghrib and isya as a family is one. Reading and discussing on the meaning of the Quran is another. Gardening, knitting, baking or night runs and other workouts are worth considering too. You don’t need enormous lengths of time on these activities to bond. An hour or two, or even half, each night is sufficient. Then when you are done, it would tie in nicely with your son’s return and eventually your bedtime. Most importantly, don’t worry if you have no more energy for sex before bed. It will be more fulfilling when you feel satisfied having been together as a couple before you sleep. In the long run, this satisfaction is more conducive to your mutual sexual attraction than frustrating failed attempts at having sex. It is the quality rather than quantity of sex that matters more.

We are a little puzzled by your statement, “So late at night I get tired and it becomes difficult to do gusl and a few hours later we have to pray fajr.” If you perform your isya’ before your son’s return from masjid, which means before any chance of sex ever happening, there is no necessity to “do gusl” right after sex and before sleeping – something you apparently dread doing. You can postpone your gusl until you wake up, just before you perform your fajr. We wonder, perhaps it is a cultural thing that you must “do gusl” right after sex. If this works for your marriage, go ahead and continue this custom. But if it is hampering your marital intimacy, it should be abandoned in favour of a less stringent and more practical Islamic requirement as explained above.

              Spontaneous sex: We note your concern that sex is no longer “spontaneous and have to always be planned”. But it is actually a myth perpetuated by romance novels, love movies and other forms of pop culture that sex between true lovers are always spontaneous. Though entertaining, realistically, it does not make sense. Our sexual readiness is heavily influenced by our psycho-emotional states – or simply put: our moods. Even if two people love each other, they are ultimately two different human beings with two different moods at any given time. Furthermore, human moods are unboundedly more varied than just sexual and non-sexual. The chances for one lover to be in the mood for sex every time the other is, is actually very slim.

Perhaps sex may have appeared as always spontaneous in your younger days. The novelty of sex may have meant that both of you were more frequently in the mood for sex then compared to now. Hence, the chances of both of you being in that mood at the exact time, was expectedly much higher then. But there were also instances of mismatch then which would now pale in comparison to the mismatches now, now that its novelty has waned. Only by comparison do you perceive it as always being spontaneous in the past. In reality, it is a case of relatively higher chances of spontaneity being remembered as always spontaneous.

In mid-marriage, with more and more responsibilities, concerns and chores vying for our attention and priorities, it is perfectly reasonable for couples to plan an appropriate time where these distractions can be put aside for a while, so that we can focus on each other’s feelings, thoughts, sensations, even fantasies and imaginations. By doing this, we are actually setting an atmosphere where our respective moods for intimacy can have a higher chance of coinciding at the same time. In other words, we are creating higher chances for sexual spontaneity to occur as opposed to hoping for it to happen by chance. See it this way:

The most celebrated of public performances, be it in music, drama, dance and sports are memorable largely due to the element of spontaneity among the artists and athletes – in addition to their artistry and virtuosity. Yet, most of these memorably celebrated performances were planned and organised events, mostly months and years in advanced. This is proof that planning does not kill spontaneity. What really kills it is the lack of chemistry between the players.

 You know what? Perhaps it is time for some serious planning on your part. How about a special retreat, away from the kids, just the two of you, a second honeymoon of sort? It would be a great atmosphere to ponder together that fourth possibility. And if he gets on board, nothing is better than this intimate atmosphere to plan your next courses of action; be it do-it-yourself or with professional help. If DIY is your choice, we would recommend “Seven Weeks to Better Sex by Domeena Renshaw, Random House, 1995” and “Sensual Massage by Paul Scott, Ryland Peters and Small, 2006” to give you solid foundations to explore extended sensual pleasuring. Then planning those intimate moments to try those exercises, be it at home or somewhere else, will all the more be needed.

If, however, he rejects all your overtures, please also consider individual counselling to help you decide what is best for you.