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updated 8/9/2011 10:18:37 AM ET 2011-08-09T14:18:37

When a woman has more communication with her male partner's closest buddies than he does, she may be putting the kibosh on their sex lives, as the result could be sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction for the man, a new study shows.

The situation of a girlfriend or wife having more contact than her significant other does with his friends is what researchers call "partner betweenness," because the woman comes between the man and his friends. Even though the friendships are platonic, these circumstances can ultimately take a toll on the couple's romantic relationship.

"Men who experience partner betweenness in their joint relationships are more likely to have trouble getting or maintaining an erection and are also more likely to experience difficulty achieving orgasm during sex," study researchers Benjamin Cornwell of Cornell University and Edward Laumann of the University of Chicago, and colleagues write Aug. 8 in the American Journal of Sociology. [ 5 Myths About the Male Body ]

The researchers examined data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, a comprehensive survey organized by the University of Chicago that included 3,005 American adults, ages 57 to 85. The survey was conducted between autumn 2005 and spring 2006. (They focused on older adults, because these men would be more likely than their young counterparts to have sexual problems and they are also more likely to experience partner betweenness, since over time a couple's social circles are likely to overlap.)

The data showed that about a quarter of men experience partner betweenness, and that these men are 92 percent more likely to report erectile dysfunction.

The researchers said that in a partner betweenness situation, it doesn't matter how often the woman speaks with her romantic partner's friends — it's the fact that she has more frequent contact with them than he does.

The man may then feel that he lacks key components of traditional masculinity due to the reduced control over his partner's and his friends' social relationship. Privacy is also a concern, since the man may stop going to his comrades for advice about personal problems — especially those concerning his partner.

If a man views his significant other's frequent contact with his confidants as a threat to his gender identity, the emotional issue can manifest as sexual problems, including erectile dysfunction, according to the researchers.

"The results point to the importance of social network factors that are rarely considered in medical research — network structure and the individual's position within it," Laumann said.

The researchers caution that it's also possible that partner betweenness affects psychological factors such as self-esteem and depression and that it's these factors that cause erectile dysfunction. However, they say their study didn't point in this direction.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter@remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter@livescience  and onFacebook.

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