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The impact of hearing loss on relationships

Contributed by | Thursday, February 11th, 2016

You might think your hearing loss only affects you, but consider this: Is your hearing loss causing problems in your relationship?

Photo of a couple embracing; he's wearing hearing aids.
Treating your hearing loss with
hearing aids can improve intimacy.

Hearing loss does not occur in a vacuum. It affects not only the person with hearing loss, but all of those surrounding him. Studies show that untreated hearing loss can negatively impact our relationships with family and friends and particularly with those closest to us, i.e. our romantic partners.

According to the Center for Hearing and Communication, over 48 million people in the U.S. have hearing loss. The problem is that only 1 out of 4 people who need them actually wear hearing aids. That means 75 percent of those with hearing loss are putting their relationships at risk. And the research bears that out: A 2009 British study revealed that out of 1,500 people with hearing loss surveyed, 44 percent reported that their hearing loss had caused relationships with their partner, friends or family to suffer. And 34 percent reported that the breakdown in communication had actually brought about loss of relationships, including marriages.

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 reflections and events, seemingly insignificant at first glance, 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.

And there is more. According to a 2007 survey published in the ASHA Leader, 35 percent of participants reported that out of all of their relationships, the one with their significant other suffered the most.

“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 recently released report titled “In it together: The impact of hearing loss on personal relationships” by Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID), 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?”

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, i.e. how tiredness 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: That there had been a significant change in the nature and content of their communication as a result of hearing loss.

All of this research boils down to one important point: 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, are actually quite significant, bringing about shared companionship and reflection. And relationships experience a significant loss in the absence of that communication.

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)

On the flip side, the studies show that 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.

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