by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A frustrated wife asked:

Can you please offer suggestions on how to live peacefully with a hearing impaired spouse who refuses hearing aids and other assistance?

My husband recognizes he has a “mild to moderate” hearing loss however, he does not admit to its severity, or how it affects his day to day life. He did obtain hearing aids on a one month trial and “didn’t like them”. He only wore them for a few hours on two or three days and refused to attend any of the classes offered by the hearing aid dispenser on how to use and adjust to them.

I have become his “hearing aid” both in and out of our home. At home, even though our television has closed captions, he continually interrupts my TV viewing, or attempts at reading to ask, “What did they say”. He does have remote earphones for TV viewing, but prefers not to wear them.

For me to talk with him, I must stand in front of him to get his attention and then speak slowly and loudly. My friends and coworkers complain that my speech has become very loud.

When we are out of the house, i.e. his recent medical appointment, he only heard those looking directly at him. The remainder of the time, I repeated the questions for him. We have not attended a movie in years, and rarely dine out or attend social events due to his problem.

I do not think he is going to change his behavior patterns. What can I do to make our mutual lives less stressful?

You are in a tough position. You can continue to put yourself out and be his “hearing aid” so he doesn’t get too upset about his hearing loss. He will then be reasonably happy. This will bring short-term peace. However, you will have to give up your own interests to be his “ears”. This will cause you to become resentful and angry at him, and that will not be good for your marriage. In other words, you can have peace in the short term, but this will ultimately erupt in war.

The better way to handle this situation is to exhibit “tough love” (which will likely result in some warfare now), but ultimately, it will bring long-term peace and harmony as needed changes take place.

Let me explain what I mean. Currently, your husband is still largely in denial. You cannot effectively help people when they are in denial because they don’t believe there is a problem in the first place, so why should they address it?

Your strategy is to keep the peace by being an enabler (being his hearing aid as you said). This strategy just helps him keep on denying that his hearing loss is a real problem.

The only way he is going to get out of denial and accept that his hearing loss is a real problem is if you don’t be his “ears” anymore. You need to let him make his own hearing mistakes. This will eventually bring home to him that he really does have a hearing problem, and that it is up to him to solve it.

Your husband gave his hearing aids a very cursory trial (a few hours over 2 or 3 days is not a fair trial) and announced they didn’t work for him. This is part of the normal reaction that those in denial make. If they don’t really have a hearing problem, then of course they don’t need hearing aids. (I’ll bet he only tried them at your insistence—not of his own free will.)

You see, now is not the right time for your husband to be trying out hearing aids even though he really does need them now. A person is ready to try out hearing aids only after he reaches the acceptance stage in the process of grieving for his hearing loss, not when he is still in denial. Your husband is just not psychologically ready at this point to wear hearing aids.

In any case, when your husband eventually realizes he needs hearing aids, he also needs to realize that it will take his brain up to 90 days to adjust to wearing hearing aids. It does not happen overnight.

Furthermore, I’ll bet your husband went about it all wrong in learning to wear his hearing aids. He likely wore them in loud places right at the start, announced he couldn’t hear a thing and yanked them out. The proper way to learn to wear hearing aids is slowly. You start out with an hour or so the first day and add half an hour a day to that on each successive day. At the same time, to begin with, you only wear them in quiet situations, then in slightly noisier places and finally in noisy situations after you are reasonably adjusted to wearing them.

Now, what can you do to help your husband? First, you have to stop being his “ears”. You need to let him “hear” on his own most of the time. There are situations when it is ok to jump in—for example, in emergencies—but when you do it all the time he will never change because he doesn’t have to face up to the problems his hearing loss is causing.

When he interrupts you to ask, “What did they say?” when he is watching the TV, all you have to say is “read the captions” and go back to whatever you were doing. He can read the captions as well as you can.

When you want to talk to him, you need to practice good hearing loss coping strategies. You say, “For me to talk with him, I must stand in front of him to get his attention, and then speak slowly and loudly.”

Believe it or not, this is proper procedure when talking to hard of hearing people. First you need to get close to him because the volume of sound drops off rapidly with increasing distance. Second, you need to get his attention. Wait until he is looking at you before you say a word. Just doing these two things will save you a lot of repeats ,and reduce frustration in both of you.

When you are with him at the doctor’s office, if he misses something, instead of repeating it for him, say to the medical staff, “Look directly at him when you are talking to him so he can hear you”. Do this as often as you have to, and eventually they will learn.

I sense that you are missing dining out and attending various social functions since your husband can’t hear in such situations. There are a number of good coping strategies to use in such places—but your husband has to be willing to do them—and he won’t do them while he is still in the denial stage. You’ll have to wait until he reaches the acceptance stage.

When he is ready, dining, even in noisier restaurants, can work very well if he uses the right assistive devices. For example, I use a PockeTalker personal amplifier and lapel microphone. I just clip the microphone on my wife and put ear buds in my ears (or use my hearing aids and a neckloop instead of the ear buds) and hear her wonderfully well. He could do the same, and you could chat again without a lot of hassle.

For social situations he could also do what I have found effective for myself. In such situations I use a super-directional handheld microphone plugged into my PockeTalker, and again use either my ear buds or hearing aids and neckloop. This way, I hear very well one-to-one as I walk around and chat.

Your husband will not change his behavior patterns until you quit acting as his ears. Thus, the first thing you have to do is quit your “ear” job. Tell him that he is going to have to hear for himself from now on. It shouldn’t take him too long to realize that he needs help. I know it is hard to refuse to be his “ears”, but that is what you have to do—”tough love,” remember.

Doing this is not going to make your mutual lives less stressful in the short term. You have to let it get worse so he moves out of the denial stage and accepts his hearing loss. He has to accept that it is his loss and thus he has to be a big part of the solution. There is going to be a bit of “rough sledding” before he accepts responsibility for his own hearing. Statistics show that the typical person takes an average of 7 years from the time he acquires a hearing loss until he is willing to do something about it.

Typically, people work though the 5 stages of grief as they learn to deal with their hearing loss. Denial is the first stage. After the denial stage comes the anger stage. Be prepared for this anger when you do not help him. You are the closest person to him, so unfortunately, you will bear the brunt of his anger. Don’t take it too personally.

This is not to say that you don’t love and support him. You can largely do this, not by nagging, but by suggesting a good way to cope in any given situation—for example, more closer so you can hear better, turn on the light so you can see what they are saying, mute the TV (or other background noise) when you want to talk so you’ll be able to hear better, etc.

Once he gets through the denial and anger stages, (I’m skipping the bargaining stage here) then comes the depression stage. This is where he will essentially give up acting like a hearing person. This sets the stage for his becoming the best hard of hearing person he can be. As he progresses through the depression stage, get ready for good things to happen as he starts to accept his hearing loss.

It is in the acceptance stage that he will become willing to do what he needs to do in order to hear as well as possible. Now, at last, he will be willing to try hearing aids, or use a an assistive device such as the PockeTalker, or read the closed captions on the TV. This all takes time. You can’t rush it. Each person progresses through the grieving process in his own time. (It often depends on how “stubborn” he is. Some of us men can be pretty stubborn, you know.)

The good news is that when he progresses to the acceptance stage, you will find it reasonably smooth sailing again, but to reach this point, you will have times of “heavy seas”. Encourage yourself that this too will pass. You just need to persevere. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it!

You (and he) would do well to read my book, “Grieving for Your Hearing Loss—the Rocky Road from Denial to Acceptance“. This short book has helped many work though their grief due to their hearing losses.

Also, my latest book, “Keys to Successfully Living with Your Hearing Loss” covers the essential keys needed to successfully adjust to living as a hard of hearing person.

When he is ready, your husband may be interested in using a PockeTalker with a lapel microphone and/or a super-directional microphone. They really do work for me. They should also work well for him also.