October 25, 2021

The Impact of Hearing Damage on Your Relationships

friends together surfing in the sunset

Hearing is one of those things that, when we have it, we tend to envision it only as a personal experience. Part of why we don’t think about protecting our hearing health as we move through life, is the same reason we sometimes don’t wear sunscreen when we go to the beach--we see the potential sunburn as a short term, personal experience. As music lovers and motorcycle riders ourselves, we get it--there’s something about us humans that almost wants it to be deafeningly loud, to overwhelm everything else. "Loud pipes save lives," we say, partly because it’s true, but also because there’s pleasure in the noise itself. Without protecting your hearing, though, you will damage it over time, resulting in hearing loss or tinnitus. This damage doesn’t impact just you, but the entire network of people around you. Whether it’s your boss, your colleagues, your friends, your partner or children, your hearing is more precious than you might think. 


Coping with hearing loss is not so much about what you have lost, but managing what you have left to hear. People who experience hearing loss report that they find themselves needing to concentrate fully on hearing and yet they still miss what is being said. They hear loud noises but miss things they don’t even realize they’ve missed--making it difficult to even understand the scope of the damage. Hearing damage alters your ability to pick up on social cues, contribute a smooth give and take to the conversation, and filter the ambient sounds in social situations. “Spoken interaction, perhaps the fundamental locus of social interaction and organization, depends on the ability of the speaker-hearers to coordinate their actions temporarily so as to produce talk that unfolds by turn with minimum of gap and overlap,”  reports the Hearing Review  during its in-depth study of hearing loss affecting intimate relationships. 


Asking for things to be repeated, messing up the flow, missing cues and introducing large gaps into the conversational landscape all has a negative impact on your ability to communicate with your boss, colleagues, partner, friends or children--the people who make up our everyday lives. And it has a negative impact on their ability to communicate with you. 

hearing loss can cause confusion

Worse, for people who experience hearing loss as a result of long term damage, they are likely to take a long time to admit there is a problem, resulting in frustration and anger and long periods of refusal to acknowledge, even to yourself, that there is a problem. The problem often becomes masked with anger and bluster. Frequently, the first time someone can admit they’ve lost hearing is through the constant experience of hearing something but not understanding what is being said. It’s also often dealt with only initially through the prompting and urging of a close partner, which can itself introduce tension in the relationship. Think especially of the experience we’ve all had throughout the pandemic--realizing how our ability to lip read as part of our hearing experience has been altered through the widespread use of masks. Our hearing damage can already be revealed in those moments of needing to see the lips as part of understanding what is being said. 


Those closest to the person experiencing hearing loss due to damage also bear the brunt of the frustration and refusal to admit there is a problem. We might think of the hearing damaged spouse yelling at the hearing functional person, without realizing that the true experience more closely aligns with the bewilderment and fear experienced by the hearing loss spouse perceiving their hearing functional partner “yelling at them all the time”. People often report that they experience that, not as a trigger to check in with their hearing health, but as a confusion and sadness about why their partner is so annoyed with them all the time. The withdrawal and quieting of the normal personality can be another unforeseen change due to hearing damage, which impacts the ability to stay connected with people around you. 


Embarrassment and frustration are frequently experienced by the person suffering from damage--they may not be old, so why are they suddenly experiencing the world in a way they associate with aging? The friction introduced into every interaction--that they don’t seem to be listening or caring to listen--dampens their interest in interacting at all. 


People also report losing spontaneity. They report being treated differently and fearing being treated differently (others speaking louder to them when they really need others to speak slowly to them). In noisier places, it can become impossible to decipher what’s being said over the background noise, so they resist participating in situations where they know they will struggle to be present. 


“Soundscapes in Western societies have changed radically in the course of the 20th century due to the artificial amplification of sound and man-made mechanical sounds stemming from cars, sirens, loudspeakers, microphones, aeroplanes, industrial machinery and modern warfare. In these increasingly noisy soundscapes, the ear has “to do duty as bodyguard, herald, explorer, and confident”, writes Hillel Schwarts. These duties are a particular challenge to the impaired ear, which receives a myriad of sounds but has continuously to struggle to make sense of them” (Hearing Health)


People suffering tinnitus withdrawal, not so much from the fear of not being able to hear, but the fear of hearing too much. Those sounds, unexpected and loud, can make the pain experienced increase abruptly. 


Without adequately protecting your hearing throughout your life, the pleasures of music and riding can become agony. The joy of being with others can turn to frustration. The very way you move through and experience the world can be altered forever. With something that is so easy to prevent (by slipping in your EarPeace ear plugs), and that doesn’t alter your experience or the pleasure of it, protecting your hearing now gives us no reason to experience hearing damage later. We have everything we need to protect ourselves now and ensure that we will be “sliding into our graves” with as much life as we want.


Read more about the impact of Mental Health, Hearing Loss and the Impact of COVID-19 

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