How Hearing Loss Affects Personal Relationships

By Amanda Farah Cox

How does hearing loss affect our relationship with our better half? “Hearing Loss as a Social Problem: A Study of Hearing-impaired Spouses and Their Hearing Partners,” a newly published study in the Hearing Review and funded by the Ida Institute, describes how people with hearing loss and their partners experience and manage hearing loss in the context of their marriage or partnership.

The study highlights how hearing loss puts pressure on personal relationships by complicating the conversational exchanges at the core of human interaction. Anthropologist Tine Tjørnhøj Thomsen and her co-author, Ida Senior Anthropologist Hans Henrik Philipsen, take a nuanced look at the social implications of hearing loss and how social factors affect individual experiences and behaviors in the context of our relationships.

Relationships, the researchers suggest, are affected by the way hearing loss disturbs the natural give-and-take of conversations, interrupting the connectedness of the interactions. Both the people with hearing loss participating and their partners bemoaned the loss of spontaneity and the difficulties of sharing unexpected experiences, observations, and small talk in everyday interactions. This influenced their relationship because sharing is a basic foundation of intimacy.

Hearing partners in the study cited how having to repeat themselves eventually makes them sound annoyed when speaking to their partner who has hearing loss. Hearing partners also say that they end up filtering their language to make sure that the person with hearing loss understands them correctly. People with hearing loss said they often felt guilty about relying on their hearing partner to fill in gaps for them at times when communication was difficult.

The couples also acknowledged that communicating outside of their home was difficult because of environmental noise. While restaurants and pubs were the most frequently cited locations, shopping malls, grocery stores, cars, and public transportation were all mentioned as difficult places to have conversations.

Anthropological methods were used to interview people with hearing loss and their communication partners. Researchers employed a method called participant observation, in which they spent time with study participants in different settings, including in their homes and during different activities. The study illustrates that hearing loss cannot be considered an individual problem and reinforces that treatment should include communication partners.

Read the study in full at the Hearing Review.