He's "hearing," I'm not. Can this marriage be saved?

By Gael Hannan

In the 1950s, Ladies' Home Journal ran a popular column called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Real-life couples shared their perspectives on their troubled marriage and an ‘expert’ weighed in with advice that would hopefully fix the problem.

This often meant the woman was advised to pull herself together and conform to her husband’s needs with a smile. I can only imagine what that expert would say about the issue in our marriage: I have profound hearing loss and my husband doesn’t. He can, in fact, hear a pin drop but only if he wants to; if he’s not focused, then his listening problem is just as bad as my hearing problem.

We're humans, not faultless robots

Hearing loss saves its biggest blow for relationships. Communication is the glue that connects us to other people and hearing loss can unglue our interpersonal dynamics. Easy flowing dialogue has become a slower, more disjointed communication process, requiring us to start a rebuilding journey that holds roadblocks along the way.

It’s a shock when our hearing partner suddenly seems insensitive to our needs. Our partners know about our hearing loss. We have explained our needs, over and over again. Learning to “give good talk” takes time and patience – if both parties are willing.

The Hearing Husband and I had an advantage; he knew what he was signing on for and I chose him, among other reasons, for his deep voice and big lips (not oversized, just proportionate to his 6’6” height) that make him easy to speechread. But that doesn’t mean he never commits a hearing loss no-no; we’re human, not robots built to be faultless. 

He talks to me while walking away, calls my name from another room, and wears a face-shading ballcap. He occasionally gets frustrated by my requests for repeats which, in all honesty, I may ask for repeats with a frown of concentration and irritation in my voice.

None of these offences are grounds for separation, but each has the powerful possibility of igniting into a nasty snit. “Why do you always do that? Do you think I can speechread the back of your head? That I can hear through walls and around corners?”

The right to participate

And if he wanted, the Hearing Husband could fire off his own zingers. “I didn’t say anything, I just coughed. And yes, I’m sorry that I forgot for just a single moment that you couldn’t see my face, maybe because we’d been talking so easily just before that? And don’t get so huffy – you’re not always innocent of calling from another room, yourself!” And he would be right! 

The Hearing Husband has a clear conscience on one thing: he’s never guilty of blowing off my what did you say with an oh, never mind – a guaranteed argument starter. Responses like this make us feel less worthy and not deserving of extra effort from our partners.

People with hearing loss have the right to participate, the right to be included – and we need to believe this before we can move forward.

Success starts with accepting

“Hearing” people do what they do best, they hear, effortlessly. Remembering that might help us take a breath before we jump all over them when they inevitably slip up.

On the other hand, in the bimodal relationship, we may be hyper-sensitive about how our hearing partners really feel. Is this a burden? Am I asking him to repeat himself too often? Does he ever wish he had a hearing wife (one who also likes to play golf, maybe)? Does my bluffing bother him?

Can he tell that sometimes when “pardon” pops out of my mouth, I’ve actually heard him and now I have to wait for him to repeat it? Sometimes I say pardon and then immediately answer him, does that bug him? Does he get tired of having captions on all the time? 

For many couples, the hearing difficulties begin after the relationship is well established. Imagine becoming hard of hearing and discovering that you had married a mumbler. Imagine that your long-time partner can no longer understand you very well. This situation may involve a longer road back to effective communication, but it will work if both parties care enough.

Success starts with accepting and learning about the hearing loss – what type is it, who can help, and what communication strategies, both technical and non-technical, will help move us forward.

So, can this marriage be saved?

The hearing care professional who is committed to person-centred care can have a huge role in their clients’ relationship success. The more my husband came to understand the true impact of hearing loss, the better communication partner he became. 

So back to the question – can this marriage be saved? Most definitely, if both parties use strategies that maintain mutual dignity both at home (including sexual intimacy) and in public.

Personally, I think one of the best gifts a couple can give themselves is learning how to discuss contentious issues (also known as arguing) effectively when hearing loss is involved. Traditional arguments that include yelling, moving around, and tightening lips in anger, just don’t work. Try this:

  • Always face each other.
  • Don’t yell. This distorts the lips and hurts the ears.
  • However, if you must, one person yells at a time. 
  • Requests for repeats allowed.
  • Frowning doesn’t necessarily mean the person with hearing loss is angry, just focused on understanding. 
  • No discussion in the dark. We don’t do dark. Therefore, never go to bed mad.

Yes, this marriage can be saved.

By the way, if you are a hearing care professionals reading this, the Ida Institute has a number of resources that can help you include communication partners in the appointment. Just a tip!