You may think that when someone has hearing loss, the problem is theirs alone. But if you’ve ever lived with someone who is hard of hearing, you know the truth: only one person may have hearing loss, but everyone has a communication problem.
Communication is based on a predictable pattern of give and take: one person says something, and the other person is expected to respond smoothly and in a reasonable amount of time. Hearing loss interrupts this pattern. The hearing-impaired person may require repetition to understand what is being said, or they may need extra time to process what they’ve heard or use context to fill in what they didn’t hear. The flow of communication is disrupted by the hearing problem.
In the early stages of hearing loss, the hard-of-hearing person may not recognize their problem, or they may be in denial about it. It’s common for a person in this situation to blame others initially: “He mumbles.” “She tries to talk to me from the other room.” In later stages, once everyone recognizes that the root of the matter is in fact hearing loss, the hearing-impaired person may feel frustrated or embarrassed, while their hearing partner may also be frustrated or even angry. Over time this can do serious damage to relationships of all kinds. Communication breakdown between coworkers can impact job performance. Friendships can drift apart. Even the doctor-patient relationship and the accurate transmission of medical information can suffer. This article will focus mainly on the spousal relationship, but it’s important to remember that every type of relationship has communication as its foundation.
The Hard-of-Hearing Partner’s Experience
For the person who actually has hearing loss, it can be a very lonely and isolating experience. They can misunderstand what people say, and feel embarrassed when they either hear something wrong or have to ask for repetition more often than seems socially acceptable. Over time, many people begin to withdraw from conversation rather than risk embarrassment, or they may simply feel like participating in the conversation is more work than it’s worth. Some people even stop going to social gatherings altogether. Social isolation and the feelings of loneliness that can result have been shown to be psychologically detrimental, and even linked to an increased risk of dementia.
Other people, unfortunately, often do tend to treat the hard of hearing differently. If it seems like conversing with Bob takes too much extra effort, Bob’s friends and family may begin leaving him out of conversations. It’s also common for people to willingly repeat what they said once or twice, but then get frustrated and say “never mind,” leaving poor Bob in the dark as to what they were talking or joking about. Obviously, this is very frustrating for Bob!
The hard-of-hearing person – let’s stick with Bob – may also feel like people don’t understand what hearing loss is like. He’s probably right: most people who haven’t experienced hearing loss themselves do have a limited understanding of what Bob is experiencing. They may not understand how much extra trouble he has with background noise. They may not understand how best to talk to him; they may shout at him, which can be painful and still unclear when speaking slowly and clearly at a normal volume is more helpful. And, if Bob has hearing aids, they may expect that Bob will hear just as well as a normal-hearing person, when in fact he may still need some accommodation and understanding because he still has hearing loss. Feeling like people don’t understand what he needs or what he’s going through may contribute to Bob’s frustration and loneliness.
The Hearing Partner’s Experience
When one member of a couple develops a hearing problem, the other person often becomes frustrated for a number of reasons. First, if the hearing-impaired partner – we’ll use Mary as our example – has not yet sought treatment for her hearing problem, or maybe doesn’t even realize yet that that’s what’s happening, then her spouse’s perception may be that Mary simply isn’t listening. A recent study by two Danish anthropologists showed that this perception is very common among hearing partners of hearing-impaired people. Even once Mary has acquired hearing aids, if she doesn’t wear them, forgets to put them in, or takes them out when she gets home from work, her spouse may still feel like she is willfully choosing not to listen; the Danish researchers stated that “hearing partners cannot be sure whether their hearing-impaired partners really cannot hear them, whether they do not “listen,” or whether they simply do not want to hear them.” The hearing-impaired person, Mary, may just want a break from the stimulation or the physical feeling of hearing aids in her ears, but the misunderstanding contributes to friction in the relationship.
The hearing partner may also grow tired of the effort required to communicate effectively with the hearing-impaired partner. Mary’s spouse may have to repeat himself multiple times, find ways to rephrase sentences, make sure he gets Mary’s attention and faces her before he says anything, and generally unlearn the habits of a lifetime. Habits are hard to change, and if these two have been married for many years, they will have fallen into patterns of communication that no longer work now that hearing loss is a part of their lives. Despite his best intentions, Mary’s spouse may begin withdrawing, feeling that it’s just too much work to make himself heard and understood.
If they go out to social gatherings, the hearing partner may also find himself responsible for Mary’s hearing. A friend may say something that Mary doesn’t understand, and her husband may find himself in the position of “translating” for Mary – repeating it into her ear, rephrasing it more clearly, or whatever else she may need in order to participate in the conversation. While Mary probably appreciates all that he’s doing for her, it does represent a burden for her hearing partner.
All this can add up to extra strain on a relationship. A couple can end up communicating less overall because of the need to be so measured and concise when speaking to the hearing impaired partner. Researchers have found that both the hearing partner and the hearing impaired partner reported – and regretted – the loss of joking, spontaneity, and small comments throughout the day, which can reinforce closeness in a relationship. And if the better-hearing partner shouts or gets irritated at having to repeat him or herself, the hearing-impaired partner can feel attacked or defensive, and both partners can end up feeling more irritated with each other.
How Hearing Aids Can Help
While hearing aids don’t cure hearing loss, they go a long, long way toward restoring communication and easing friction within relationships. The most common thing we hear from patients is that they wish they’d gotten hearing aids sooner! Hearing aids can help you to communicate around the house more easily, and to participate in groups without relying on your spouse to “translate” for you when you miss what’s being said. They can reduce miscommunication and tension in the relationship. People often say that they didn’t realize how bad things had gotten and that the whole family is happier now that this barrier to communication has been improved.
Of course, it’s still important to practice good communication strategies, even with hearing aids – and even if no one in the household has hearing loss! Some things you can do to make communication easier at home are:
- Get someone’s attention before you start talking to them
- Don’t try to talk over noise such as running water or clanking dishes
- Go into the same room as the person you’re talking to
- Face the person you’re talking to
- If someone says “What?” or “Huh?” try rephrasing your sentence rather than simply repeating it.