The impact of hearing loss on relationships

Contributed by Joy Victory, managing editor, Healthy Hearing

"It's not all about you," as they say. This applies to many areas of life, but it is particularly true if your hearing isn't what it used to be. You might think your hearing loss only affects you, but consider this: Is your hearing loss causing problems in your relationship?

Hearing loss does not occur in a vacuum. Studies show that untreated hearing loss can negatively impact our relationships with family and friends and particularly with those closest to us, such as our romantic partners.

Hearing loss strains relationships

Research makes it pretty clear that untreated hearing loss can be a major source of stress, especially among couples.

"Studies show that hearing loss produces feelings of frustration, embarrassment, and distress for the partner and for the relationship in general," said two researchers who conducted a qualitative study of couples where one partner had hearing loss.

The researchers found that "both the hearing-impaired participants and their close partners bemoaned the loss of spontaneity and the difficulties of sharing small unexpected incidents, observations and small talk in their everyday interactions."

Communication is key to a healthy relationship

Day to day communication among couples, whether about important matters or those that seem trivial, are the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. Hearing loss can cause those small but important interactions to be lost. When communication breaks down, frustration creeps in. That frustration can lead to resentment, which leads to further breakdown in communication and intimacy. The result? A sense of loneliness and isolation for both partners.

“All too often spouses blame each other’s ability to listen when in fact it is truly a hearing problem that is chipping away at their ability to communicate,” said audiologist Patricia Chute, professor and chair of the Division of Health Professions at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

A report titled “In it together: The impact of hearing loss on personal relationships” by Action on Hearing Loss revealed the results of 23 interviews conducted with those with hearing loss and their partners. The goal of the interviews was to answer the basic question, “How do partners and their families respond to hearing loss?”

Even supportive partners struggle to understand

The interviews revealed both the positives and negatives in terms of partnership when it comes to hearing loss. While those with hearing loss viewed their partners as a valuable source of support and as having an important role in creating awareness of the presence of hearing loss and encouraging treatment, there was a downside: Participants in the interviews stated that even the most supportive partners seemed to have difficulty truly understanding hearing loss, for example how listening fatigue and background noise play a role in how much their partner could hear at any given time. And overall, both the hearing partners and those with hearing loss agreed on one thing: There had been a significant change in the nature and content of their communication as a result of hearing loss.

All of this research confirms that even the smallest communications, even those normally deemed as unimportant, actually build intimacy and connection between partners. Those small asides, including jokes and humor, bring about shared companionship and reflection. And relationships, especially marriages, experience a significant loss in the absence of that communication.

Negative emotions connected to hearing loss

Hearing loss can cause a cascade of detrimental effects and negative emotions between partners. Among these:

  • Frustration
  • Resentment
  • Loneliness, i.e. the hearing partners feel that they are missing out on companionship
  • Curtailing of social activities, withdrawal from social interaction
  • Decrease in intimate talk, joking with family
  • Shared communication difficulties
  • Decrease in shared activities such as watching TV
  • Loss of companionship
  • Decrease in communication (words are kept to a minimum)

Tips for talking your partner about hearing loss

If your partner or spouse isn’t hearing well

Living with someone who can’t hear can be frustrating, especially when they are unaware of the problem. If they constantly ask you to repeat yourself, turn up the volume on the television to an uncomfortable level, or have trouble hearing the telephone, microwave or doorbell chime, it might be time to have a heart-to-heart chat. Pick a quiet time when the two of you are in a good mood and you can talk uninterrupted. Use a firm, caring tone that is not judgemental or condescending.

  • Tell them it's affecting your relationship. While your husband or wife may be concerned about the stigma of wearing hearing aids, someone saying "what?" all the time can be relationship buzzkill. Hearing loss affects communication, which is the core of all relationships.
  • Tell them you’re concerned for their health. When hearing loss is left untreated, the speech and language areas of the brain can atrophy, leading to auditory deprivation and putting a person at increased risk of cognitive decline.
  • Tell them you’re concerned for your own health. The additional stress of worrying about your other half's health and safety can take a physical and emotional toll on your own health. Plus, it's no fun to listen to the TV or stereo when it's cranked up too high, or having to shout or constantly repeat yourself.
  • Make an appointment to have your own hearing tested and ask them to go with you. First of all, it’s something you should do anyway. Secondly, it’s always good to have another set of ears to hear what the hearing care provider has to say, no matter who the patient is. Who knows? The hearing evaluation process is so simple and easy, they might just agree to have their own test.
  • Discuss hearing loss's broad impact. They may not be aware of all the ways that their hearing loss is lowering their quality of life. Discuss the 10 signs of hearing loss with them, including signs like fatigue and feeling frustrated a lot.

If your partner says you aren’t hearing well

Hearing loss is a equal opportunity offender, so it’s not inconceivable your spouse may gently suggest you have your hearing evaluated one day. If he or she does...

  • Be receptive and try not to be offended. With 48 million Americans reporting some degree of hearing loss, you’re in good company. Besides, for all the reasons we just stated, you aren’t the only one who is suffering here.
  • Educate yourself about hearing loss. There are many different types of hearing loss and reasons why you should treat it.
  • Agree to have your hearing tested. Only a qualified hearing healthcare professional can determine whether or not you have hearing loss, and to what extent. Fortunately, hearing tests are easy and painless. Some hearing centers even offer free evaluations with no obligation to purchase anything.
  • If you have hearing loss, accept the diagnosis and seek treatment as soon as possible. Of the 48 million Americans with hearing loss, the NIDCD estimates more than 28.8 million of them would benefit from wearing hearing aids. Today’s hearing devices aren’t anything like the ones your parents wore—technology has come a long way in the past ten years. Your hearing healthcare professional can help you find a treatment solution that fits your lifestyle as well as your pocketbook.

Regardless of who is on the receiving end of this serious health conversation, try to also have a sense of humor. Being able to laugh together can help diffuse the situation and put both of you at ease.

Hearing loss and marriage: Hearing aids can resolve issues

Interventions such as hearing aids can not only improve quality of life, but can improve relationship satisfaction, communication and social functioning. From having intimate conversations with their partners to watching TV together or socializing, people who get hearing aids find that they are once again able to enjoy life. And more importantly, they are able to enjoy life once again as a part of a couple.

So think about the relationships that matter in your life. Has communication with those you love suffered? If you are experiencing communication issues due to hearing loss, don’t wait to seek treatment. Make an appointment with a hearing care professional today.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright Healthy Hearing (www.healthyhearing.com). Original article: https://www.healthyhearing.com/report/52619-The-impact-of-hearing-loss-on-relationships

Learn more about the link between hearing loss and cognitive impairments and dementia, and if hearing aids can help.