Is there such a thing as selective hearing loss? Is there any truth to the joke some husbands make, that they can hear everyone except their wives?
“It absolutely happens. In fact very often it’s the reason people show up at our office,” says Hanan Merrill, owner of Nanaimo Hearing Clinic.
Having trouble communicating with a spouse is both a hearing issue and a listening issue. As we become familiar with the people we live with, we can become less attuned to what they say and may listen less closely. But even mild hearing loss can make listening much harder, and you may not realize the effort you’re exerting to stay connected.
“High frequency hearing loss can be particularly challenging. It’s similar to turning down the treble on a car stereo — you can still hear sound, it’s just mellow and muffled. That means it takes more effort to listen,” Hanan says.
Just like glasses reduce eye strain so your brain has more energy to understand the words in a book, hearing aids make sound more crisp so you have more energy to understand conversation.
“Even mild hearing loss actually causes the brain to reorganize itself, and borrow mental resources from other areas. If it takes that much effort to hear, you may find it’s easier to tune out,” Hanan says.
The science, and art, of better hearing
Communicating with your spouse is complicated, and clear hearing isn’t the only factor at play.
“Sometimes a client will say that they can hear fine when they’re with their friends, and it’s just their wife they can’t hear. It may be the pitch of her voice, or it may be that she’s the only one honest enough to point out what’s going on,” Hanan says.
Hearing loss can be so gradual that you don’t notice the ways you compensate. If it takes more effort to hear clearly, you may avoid certain restaurants, groups or activities. Hearing aids can bring clarity, so your brain has more energy for comprehension.
“Certain letters in a conversation are louder or different pitches. Damaged hair cells of the inner ear cause some parts of speech to be blurred, but not all — your brain expends energy to fill in the missing bits. That may mean that you think you can hear just fine, but it’s harder to understand,” Hanan says.
The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to men — women can have trouble hearing their husbands’ hearing too, for similar reasons.
Many of us are hesitant to start using a new health aid, whether it’s glasses, a cane or hearing aids. But they can remove some of the struggle from daily life so there’s more energy for the things that matter.
“It’s not sharp hearing that we really want, it’s understanding. That’s how we connect with our world. Hearing aids save mental energy so we can focus more on relationships, on enjoying life, and understanding the world.”