When Nick struck up a conversation with the guy behind him in line for the ATM in central Nottingham, he had just gotten out of a 10-year relationship and was taking a break from dating.
As a hairdresser and salon owner, Nick was used to making small talk with strangers, but that didn’t stop him from feeling butterflies when the handsome man with the great hair flashed a smile. By the time it was Nick’s turn at the ATM, he and Rob had exchanged numbers.
That was eleven years ago, and Nick and Rob have been together ever since.
Every relationship has its challenges, but when you add hearing loss to the mix, it can be downright complicated. Nick has hereditary hearing loss, but he and Rob have learned to work together to manage the communication challenges that come with it.
“Sometimes we think deliberately about communication and communication strategies, and other times things happen more organically,” says Nick. “I think all couples where one partner is deaf get better and better organically with strategies to get by. Rob and I work well as a unit, complementing each other.”
The recipe for success
Nick and Rob’s relationship illustrates the important role that communication partners play both on a practical and emotional level.
“Socially I rely on Rob all the time. He alerts me to things like comments by wait staff, shop assistants, barmen, and people wanting to get past us. He also notices when I don’t hear traffic approaching. In group situations, he’s my interpreter. He’s very patient and hardly ever gets frustrated with my hearing loss. At least, he doesn’t show it.”
In addition to running a salon, Nick is active in the hearing loss community and is dedicated to raising awareness about hearing loss. Rob plays an active role in this part of Nick’s life.
“Rob supports my work to raising awareness about hearing loss, campaigning for rights and access. We always discuss my advocacy work and he sends me links to articles and events he knows I’d be interested in.”
While the couple’s ability to deal with hearing loss as a couple seems to have brought them even closer, there are of course challenges and situations they work at managing.
“Without my hearing aids in when we go to bed at night, I can’t tell what he’s saying if I don’t see his face. Same when we get up. Spontaneous conversations can be difficult and even after eleven years, we still sometimes try to talk from different rooms.”
But it’s music that provides one of the biggest recurring hurdles in Nick and Rob’s relationship. Nick has had a deep, lifelong devotion to music. While his hearing loss has made it more difficult to access it, he has always found a way, whether by dancing by feeling the beat of the bass, lipreading from the front row of a concert, or cranking the volume to hear it as he could when he was a teenager.
“When we’re in Rob’s car the music is not loud enough for me – it’s just noise,” says Nick. “I always ask if I can turn it up and later, he often sneaks the volume down on his steering wheel controls. I know he doesn’t want to upset me, but his ears must hurt! In my car he says I have the music too loud. It sounds normal to me. We often have a moment of disagreement about this. Similarly, I have a state-of-the-art sound system in my attic lounge. Rob often arrives after work and says that he could hear the bass in the car park behind the building.”
The couple enjoys going out, but there’s sometimes a flipside to their social activities.
“I often get anxious before socializing,” Nick says. “If Rob leaves my side to mingle, I panic because I can’t understand what people are saying — though, once I’ve had a few drinks, I don’t care so much,” he adds with a laugh.
Nick recognizes that communicating in a group setting is not only difficult for the person with hearing loss, it can also be a trying situation for his partner.
“I can talk very loudly in social situations where there’s a lot of noise. Since my hearing aids compensate automatically, I can’t hear myself — it’s like wearing headphones,” he explains. “I’m sure that took some getting used to for Rob. Sometimes I get defensive and embarrassed if he points out I’ve misunderstood someone, or I respond incorrectly. But I think he knows how to handle me now. In the words of Madonna, ‘He’s my mother, father, sister, brother, friend, and lover.’
“It must be a challenge for him, but I hope the other aspects of me make putting up with my hearing loss worth it. As I tell him, ‘I am fabulous — trust me on this one.’”
Nick and Rob’s tips for relationships with hearing loss
1. Hand signals
Develop subtle signals for the partner with hearing loss to use to communicate when they aren’t following a conversation or need a noise break. The hearing partner could use the signals to let their significant other know if they are speaking too loudly or seem to have missed something important.
2. Technology is your friend
Agree to have subtitles on the TV all the time, attend captioned cinema and theatre, and bring a wireless microphone to noisy environments when socializing. There are also devices to enable dual listening volumes for the car or tv by streaming directly to hearing aids.
3. Attention first
The hearing partner must have the attention of the partner with hearing loss before getting into a conversation. Start conversations with, “By the way…” or, “I have something to tell you,” so that the first part of the topic isn’t missed.
4. Accessible locations
Keep a list of places like bars, restaurants, parks, and theatres where you know the listening environment and accessibility for people with hearing loss fits your needs.
5. Being supportive
Be supportive when rude or ignorant people say things like, “Is he deaf or what?” Or “Can you be quiet? We can hear every word you’re saying.” It can be mortifying and upsetting when people make such comments, but knowing your partner has your back can make a difficult situation less stressful and more manageable.
A partner with hearing loss needs to allow that, even with the best of intentions, their significant other may not always remember to face them when speaking, may sometimes mumble, shout from another room, or not automatically turn the subtitles on.
Similarly, it takes a patient hearing partner to repeat and rephrase as necessary, interpret and explain for their partner in social situations, and accept that your partner may need noise and rest breaks.
Nick is a salon owner and advocate for people with hearing loss. You can follow him on Instagram as he works to raise awareness about hearing loss, dispel some of the myths surrounding it, and helps to implement change for people with hearing loss.