by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A lady wrote:
My husband’s hearing has been deteriorating over the years. Within the last year or so it has gotten considerably worse. He now wears hearing aids in both ears.
We are struggling to find new communication skills. Frankly we get frustrated with each other, and at times irritated. For example, he will ask me something from 3 rooms away, or when he is at the kitchen sink with water running and then get annoyed with me because he can’t hear my answer. I am willing to make adjustments and do whatever I can to help my husband, but there are times when it seems he expects me to do all the adjusting. How should I handle these situations?
There are many communications skills that both of you need to learn in order to have effective, yet frustration-free communication. Unlike before, communication won’t be effortless any more, but when you apply proper coping strategies, it will be effective.
As you already know, if you don’t use effective ways of communicating with each other, the frustration mounts. This is not good for your marriage. In fact, if the irritation becomes too great, it can (and too often does) lead to divorce. That is why it is so important to take steps now to avoid a communications breakdown. The good news is that you already recognize that there are problems, and you are trying to find proper solutions.
With that in mind, let’s look at the specific example you gave. Your husband asks you something from 3 rooms away and then gets annoyed because he can’t hear your answer when you call out to him.
Talking to each other from three rooms away is easy for people with normal hearing. However, now that your husband has a significant hearing loss, that ease of communication is gone forever. You now have to scrap your old ways of communicating that no longer work, and find new ways that will work for both of you.
When your husband calls to you from a greater distance than he can hear, he is setting himself up for communications failure. In addition, he is being unfair to you, Since his voice is just as good as it always was, talking to you from a distance like he has always done is not the problem. The problem is that he can’t hear your reply from that distance. Running to him every time this happens is not fair to you.
Here is the proper way to handle this situation fairly. The hard of hearing spouse must never call out or talk to the hearing spouse if the distance is greater than he will be able to hear the reply (except in emergencies).
The rule is if he wants to talk to you, it is HIS responsibility to come close enough to you before he begins talking so that he will be able to hear your answer the first time when you reply. (This may mean getting right in your face, but that is ok.) If he doesn’t do this, you simply ignore him. Never answer until he is close enough to hear you. Otherwise you will be enabling him to continue with his bad communication habits, not to mention your becoming more and more upset every time this happens.
By the same token, if you want to talk to him, you need to go to him and get close enough to him so that he will hear you correctly the first time before you start talking. (Again, this may mean getting right in his face.) If you fail to do this, he is to ignore you—and he will because he can’t hear well in the first place.
To recap, the fair way to communicate is the one who initiates the communication needs to go to the other spouse before talking. It is not fair to make the hearing spouse do all the adjusting. Communication is a two-way street, so both of you have to do your parts.
If both of you agree to these rules, and refuse to reply if the other person doesn’t follow them, you will soon be on the path to communications success. (Of course, there may be a bit of trouble at the outset while you change your deeply-ingrained communication habits of many years. Habits take time to break—so don’t be nasty or impatient with each other if one of you forgets and doesn’t follow the rules—just gently remind the offender that this is not how we communicate any more.)
There are all sorts of variations that can also work. For example, if I want to ask my wife something and she is some distance in front of me, I either have to go to her and get in front of her, or I could ask her to turn around and look at me (which really isn’t her responsibility), or I could do something entirely different. What I do sometimes is ask her a question that she can answer by nodding or shaking her head. I just have to preface my question, “Just nod or shake your head to reply.” Then it is my responsibility to be watching her head to see what her response will be. I do this so often that she knows enough to nod or shake her head, and knows that I will be watching for that.
My hard of hearing daughter and her husband use a two-tone, high-low whistle to get each other’s attention rather that calling to each other. They often do this while out hiking. For example, my son-in-law will give their special whistle to get my daughter’s attention, and when she turns to face him, he points to some animal or bird. This works well for them (and me too).
Do whatever works for both of you. Just remember to be fair.
Since I speechread all the time, my policy is, “if you’re not looking at me, you’re not talking to me” (even if I am the only one present)! Anything else is basically an exercise in futility.
I give these and many other effective communication tips in my short book, Talking with Hard of Hearing People—Here’s How to Do It Right! To get your copy of this extremely helpful book that can help reduce the communication frustration in your marriage, click on the above link.