Growing a Healthy Relationship when Partner has Hearing Loss – Part 1

Growing a Healthy Relationship when Partner has Hearing Loss – Part 1

By Laine Waggoner, M.A., M.S.

Editor: Char and I have known Laine and Rex Waggoner for several years now, and have even presented with them at a national conference! We are all very interested in promoting communication between people with hearing loss and the important folks in their lives. Here’s a recent article that reveals some of their wisdom.

As appeared in Spring ’04 issue of Hearing Health. Reprinted with permission. For more information on HH and to subscribe to online and print editions, call 202.887.5850 or visit www.hearinghealthmag.com.

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Healthy relationships involve, above all, good communication, respect and friendship. The ideal mix for a thriving relationship also includes love, awareness, empathy, humor, patience, compassion, acceptance, admiration, commitment, caring and cooperation.

In partnerships between hearing and hard-of-hearing (HOH) individuals, a few added ingredients may be necessary to glean the greatest rewards. The partners need to develop and maintain a positive attitude, value themselves and expand their sense of adventure. They also must let creativity flow and maintain a sense of humor in solving communication problems.

A productive 38-year partnership with Rex, my devoted and super-hearing spouse, has been a proving ground. My hearing loss has been a positive test of our love, commitment, tolerance and patience.

Early in our marriage, Rex became a willing hearing partner. He often says, “Hearing loss is not a solo act. It takes a strong supporting cast.” And we have found that with a solid foundation of caring, everyone involved in the “communication loop” can overcome the challenges hearing loss places on a relationship.

Rex and I struggled on our own until about 18 years ago when we began to discover avenues of support, including Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, Hearing Health and the Association of Late Deafened Adults. Utilizing these educational and support resources has been invaluable to us in our personal adjustment. They also enhance our outreach to share creative solutions for interpersonal issues related to hearing loss. This has been my crusade for the past 15 years, derived partly from a passion to share my coping skills developed during 46 years of hearing aid use for progressive sensorineural loss. I manage what is now a profound loss with digital hearing aids, assistive listening devices and speechreading.

Via the workshops we present to a variety of organizations, Rex and I amuse and educate as we share our trial-and-error adventures of meeting the challenges of my hearing loss. We’ve made mistakes aplenty but mold our experiences into dos and don’ts of effective communication. During our presentations, as well as in the privacy of our coupledom, we laugh at our foibles and try to have fun while creating effective communication strategies.

Our underlying premise is that a HOH person who uses an assertive self-help approach can develop feelings of hope and mastery in relationships. They are invaluable in the ongoing struggle to prevent communication breakdowns, self-defeating attitudes, negative thinking and loss of self-esteem – all of which are detrimental to relationships.

Communication is Key

As in any long-term relationship, it is essential that hearing and HOH partners be flexible and accept differences in individual personality or communication style without criticism or blame. It is quite natural for two people to have very different impressions of the same conversation. This is due to differences in gender, culture, upbringing and other influences that shape the way we see our world and how we relate to others.

Hearing loss is an added complication. Effective education is essential for understanding its inherent problems. For example, hearing loss may fluctuate. And stress and fatigue caused by hearing loss may affect our bodies, brains, behavior, emotions (creating grief, denial, anger, paranoia, etc.) and inevitably our relationships.

It is essential that both partners maintain a positive outlook. Negative self-talk is a sure way to end up feeling helpless and hopeless and to withdraw from social interaction. Some negative thoughts are voiced as denials: “It’s not me! Everyone else is mumbling;” “I am worthless, so I don’t deserve cooperation or accommodation.” We all have these feelings from time to time but it is important to nip this negative self-talk in the bud.

Aggression and negativity can be ploys to avoid intimacy and usually lead to people withdrawing from one another. For example, some HOH partners develop a self-righteous attitude: “I’ve told people I have a hearing problem so I shouldn’t have to keep reminding them to speak up.” Also, we HOH listeners hate that negative reply “Never mind” when we ask hearing people to repeat themselves. What those words really make us feel is unloved and unimportant. Rather than developing defenses and a negative attitude, however, we need to confidently assert ourselves and explain how we feel to our partner.

Rex says that hearing partners often forget that communication is a two-way street, telling themselves, “I shouldn’t have to repeat myself. It’s the other person’s problem.” As a rule, we dread when our HOH partner responds with “What?” or “Huh?” when they missed something we’ve said. But admittedly, that usually happens when we have neglected to get their full attention.

Rex conducts workshops for hearing partners because they have special needs too. We both feel that it is important to address their issues and to provide them with a safe haven to express their feelings. From his personal perspective, Rex explains that it’s natural to grieve the loss of intimacy and spontaneity and even experience loneliness, guilt about being impatient and frustration and anger that can arise from living with a partner’s hearing loss.

Part Two