When Relationships and Hearing Loss Collide

I am 15 years old, sitting on the brown leather loveseat in the living room. From the kitchen behind me, I hear my sister say something and then laugh. I didn’t catch what she said, so I turn around and ask, “What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.” At this, she bursts out laughing even harder. When she calms, she explains that she’d made a joke about my deafness, and the fact that I couldn’t hear it only made it funnier.

That’s one of the more positive experiences I’ve had regarding my hearing loss in my relationships. Our desire to connect with one another necessitates communication: speaking a common language, reading each other’s body expressions, and both hearing and listening to what others have to say. But what happens when you can’t always do one of those things?

My hearing impairment is unilateral, and largely impacts my ability to discriminate. The best analogy I can provide is that it’s akin to listening to a conversation through a wooden door: you can’t always hear things from the other side, but even when you can hear sounds, you can rarely make out the words.

Being unilaterally impaired has meant that I’ve been able to “pass” most of my life as non-disabled, adapting to situations in ways that allow me to hear well enough to get by. But in high school, my hearing loss worsened, and I finally saw just how detrimental not being able to hear can be. At round tables, I would fall between the cracks in conversations because I could only hear and understand a third of what was being said. My closest friends would get annoyed with me after the third time they called my name and I didn’t respond because I never heard them. The most frustrating was asking someone to repeat themselves--sometimes twice or more--as I couldn’t understand them through their mumbling because of the response I would get. When I asked that second time, people would often slowly and loudly repeat themselves with all the attitude in the world. Being hit with their anger and frustration, I couldn’t help but feel small and angry, because I’m deaf, not stupid, and it’s not my fault that I can’t hear you.

My sophomore year in high school, I gave in to hearing aids. That was difficult, because it felt like I was accepting that I was disabled, that I needed help. And while they do help, they don’t totally resolve the issue. There’s this perception that hearing aids completely fix the issue of hearing impairment—but that’s not always the case. I use a cross system; this means that the hearing aid on my left ear works like a microphone, picking up the sound from my left side, and my right hearing aid works like a speaker, feeding that sound into my good ear. Don’t mistake me, it helps considerably. But amplifying sound is not a complete solution to having difficulty making out words, and it doesn’t mean that I can hear everything.

I’m currently in the longest love relationship I’ve ever been in with a man who highly values communication and feeling heard. While I currently regularly wear hearing aids, we still run into issues.

“Dillon!” I call from downstairs. He shows up at the top of the stairs.

“Did you call my name, dear?”

“I did!” Dillon sits on his hip and squints at me.

“What did you think I said?”

“…’Did you call my name?’”

“I said, ‘What can I do for you, my dear?’”

In hindsight, that interaction is pretty funny, especially taken from a third-party perspective. But it shows just how easily small things get modified in translation. Sometimes I don’t grab something important on my way out the door because I didn’t hear him ask for it. Sometimes I answer to a completely different question and cause confusion because I misheard what was asked. And sometimes he feels forgotten because I didn’t remember something I never heard him say. It is not easy.

Experiencing the negative emotional reactions to my hearing loss has been both challenging and curious. Challenging, because I’m emotionally porous and tend to absorb at least some of the emotions of the person I’m engaging with. Curious, because somehow everyone else gets to be angry about something that I am the victim to. I can’t escape the loneliness and isolation of not being able to fully hear because I can’t make myself hear any better. I can’t escape the hopelessness and smallness I feel when people who have known me my whole life still get frustrated over my impairment. And I can’t muster the sympathy to feel sorry for your frustration when I spend my whole life being me.

Running into wall after wall of communication barriers with people has taught me many things, the most important of which is perhaps that patience truly is a virtue.

In 2016 I sat on a panel of deaf/hearing impaired individuals for a Seattle Children’s Hospital forum. Parents, teachers, care workers all asked us questions from the audience to gain insight into what the world is like for us. One school counselor asked me what’s something I wish everyone knew. And I said, “I wish everyone would know how to clearly communicate. It’s a privilege to be able to understand people when they’re quiet, or mumble, or talk too fast. But good communication centers around making sure others can understand you, and that extends beyond accommodating the hearing-impaired community.”

Clear communication is something everyone can get behind. Understanding the value of it can help reduce feeling frustrated when I ask you to repeat yourself again, or knowing which side to be on so I can clearly understand you. A world in silence is a lonely place, and it’s vital to understand that I can only do so much to make communicating with me easier for someone else. Communication is a two-way street, and that’s worth knowing for every conversation.