The Challenges of Hearing Loss in Relationships
Most of us would agree that the key to a successful marriage, or any successful relationship, is good communication. So what happens if one of the partners develops hearing loss? The onset of hearing difficulties, whether mild or profound, has a major impact on how couples interact. All the rules change: idle chitchat is difficult, throwaway remarks from another room are incomprehensible, and once-enjoyable parties or restaurant dinners become noisy nightmares for the person who has a hearing loss or is deafened.
The frustrations and emotional upsets of hearing loss can have a devastating effect on self-esteem. A person may become isolated in his or her world of distorted hearing, withdrawing from many of the activities that once brought pleasure. The hearing spouse is also dramatically affected, living with a formerly chatty and involved partner who has become distant or is even in denial about the hearing loss and refusing to get help.
Every couple deals with hearing loss in a different way, and how well they cope depends on previous levels of communication and commitment, patience and tolerance, and willingness to explore new paths. To take a look at how hearing loss affects a relationship, the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association and the Canadian Hearing Society sponsored a panel discussion called “Hearing in Marriage.” Moderated by Mimi and Ed Clifford, retired psychologists and educators who have been married for 51 years and who both have hearing loss, the panel of three couples discussed hearing issues in their marriages in front of a 40-person audience.
The panelists were Linda (hard of hearing) and Bernie (hearing), Scott (deaf) and Lori (hard of hearing), and my husband, Doug (hearing), and me (hard of hearing). There were only two rules of discussion: partners were encouraged to talk directly to each other, and no advice was to be offered by, or to, any person.
At the start of the discussion, panelists expressed the high level of mutual support that existed in their relationships, but as it progressed, concerns started appearing!
Linda and Bernie have been married for 23 years and worked together in the legal profession for 30. Linda’s severe-to-profound hearing loss developed gradually over eight years, and as it has become more significant, they have quietly adjusted to the necessary accommodations.
“I don’t ever remember even stopping to think, this must be awful for him to have to deal with,” said Linda to her husband. “I never hesitated to ask you to do anything for me, and I never felt you resented the extra work.”
Yet, with the “confessions” of their fellow panelists, Bernie and Linda were surprised at where the discussions took them. When panelists with hearing loss spoke of the acute embarrassment, during group discussions, of making comments on a topic already abandoned, Bernie realized that Linda didn’t always appreciate his teasing her when she made a remark from left field.
“You’ll make a comment and I’ll go off on a tangent on something I thought I heard,” I said to my husband, Doug, “only to find out I misunderstood. Then I’m so embarrassed it makes me even madder.”
Mimi agreed. “It’s a sensitive area. You feel like a damn fool when you’re out on a limb somewhere. You learn to laugh at it.”
People with hearing loss need to find ways to augment their residual hearing, which often means learning to rely on other people for hearing or interpreting. It’s not an easy adjustment for some, and there was agreement with my comment to Doug: “I like to be the one to explain that I am hard of hearing; I feel I have more power and strength if it comes from me, and not you protecting me.”
Lori encourages husband Scott, who is profoundly deaf and has a cochlear implant, to be more outspoken in his face-to-face interactions. “If someone comes to me and says, what did Scott say? I say it’s a conversation between you two, ask Scott.”
Scott replied, “You are hard of hearing, I am deaf. You are more assertive with people, and I am more reserved. So if I have a problem [communicating], I don’t mind having you involved.”
The need to communicate in an intimate way was a topic that the panelists kept revisiting. For some, it was an ongoing problem and, for others, the solution was clear.
“If I want to have a serious, intimate conversation with you,” says Linda, “I know that we have to do it under very quiet circumstances, with no background noises, disturbances. It’s now a different life which I have to accept; otherwise, I would just be consumed with resentment because you can hear things that I can’t.”
The hearing partner faces challenges that can be every bit as frustrating as his or her partner’s. What issues are related to hearing loss and which aren’t? As Ed explains, “When you say I can’t use the telephone’ when you have just spoken for a half hour to somebody, that rubs salt in the wound. And there are times when you raise your voice because you think you’re not being heard and other times you raise your voice when you are angry. It’s difficult for me to differentiate the two. So whenever I hear the loud voice, I assume that you are angry with me until proven otherwise.”
Easy repartee and verbal spontaneity are victims of a relationship affected by hearing loss. Group conversations are difficult as the comments fly around the room. At night, when hearing aids come out and the lights go off, people who are deaf or hard of hearing cannot easily communicate. Doug revealed that when I don’t have my aids in, he enjoys extra sleep. Linda finds peace and quiet in deliberately delaying the moment when she puts in her hearing, while Lori finds it frustrating when Scott isn’t “switched on.”
Parenting with a hearing loss is always a concern. Scott and Lori, who communicate with both speech and sign language, are working professionals with a 15-month-old toddler. Like all new parents, they suffer from lack of sleep. And like many new mothers, Lori is trying to find balance between her key roles of partner and mom, realizing that most of her patience is currently directed towards their son. But, using a combination of sign and voice, Scott and Lori work at communicating even when “we don’t have much energy.”
“When I was pregnant,” I said to Doug, “I worried. How was I going to hear my son in the middle of the night? I had to depend on you to hear him cry. Not that you got up, mind you!”
Doug had the other side of the story. “There were times that you didn’t hear or wake up to know that I did!”
One of the most infuriating things a person with hearing loss can be told is, “You hear what you want to hear.” The hearing spouse observes what appears to be selective hearing, when the reality of hearing loss is that factors such as background noise, the voice doing the speaking, lighting, and position of the speaker all affect how and what a person hears at a given moment. Yet, as Mimi said, “It’s very difficult to tell whether you’re not hearing me or not paying attention and not wanting to respond. Even if I am bellowing, it should be clear that something is there, some sound you should be hearing or paying attention to. There is a mix between unwillingness to hear and not being able to hear, and I don’t know how to discriminate.”
The panelists agreed that while hearing loss is a complex issue, certain communication problems stem from the “man/woman thing” — that is, there are hearing problems and listening problems. Hearing loss is a defining characteristic of how spouses interact, but the success of their marriages also depends on general compatibility and willingness to find solutions. Given this, it’s understandable why many relationships do not survive the heavy burden of a significant, acquired hearing loss that tears the heart out of customary communication.
The evening offered no pat answers. But it was an exciting stimulation of ideas on meeting the challenges of hearing loss. Couples struggling with this, or any other hearing loss-related issue, are urged to seek help from their family doctor, audiologist or local service agency such as the Canadian Hearing Society.
(Gael Hannan is a speechreading instructor and president of the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association (CHHA), a national consumer association providing support and information for hard of hearing and oral deaf Canadians. The information for this article was made possible by the real-time captioning transcript of Neeson & Knoll Real-Time Reporting. For more information on hearing loss, contact the national office of CHHA, 1-800-263-8068 or www.chha.ca, or the Canadian Hearing Society, (416) 964-9595 or www.chs.ca.)