How it Works

One of the most impactful activities is commonly referred to as a trust walk. Husbands and wives are separated into two groups. The husbands are taken aside and are given the following instructions. They are told that, in a moment, each will place a blindfold over the eyes of his wife, stand behind her, place his hands on her shoulders, and whisper three things into her ear: “You can trust me, only listen to my voice, and I will never leave you.” Then each husband is instructed to lead his blindfolded wife through a pre-determined obstacle course, all the time giving her key clues as to where to step, direction, etc. The wife has no idea of where she is going or what to expect.

The husband is instructed at one point during the trust walk to remove his hands from his wife’s shoulders, while still walking behind her. When he removes his hands, the wife typically begins to question whether her husband has left her – giving him all the more reason to repeat and emphasize, “I will never leave you.” At the same time marital practictioners will try to convince each blindfolded wife to follow their voices instead of her husband’s. At first, the woman usually listens to the leaders until her husband reminds her to only listen to his voice. This trust walk activity provides an isomorphic metaphor for being able to trust, depend, and rely upon each other for support, guidance, and counsel in daily life.

Personal Anecdote from Dr. Sumlin

“While facilitating this activity during one of the experimental ABME groups, I noticed that one particular husband was reluctant to remove his hands from his blindfolded wife’s shoulders at the designated time. After persistent attempts of motioning him to do so, he became resilient in his desire to stay close to his wife’s side without letting go. As they proceeded through the obstacle course, I also noticed that his wife was terribly upset, crying and breathing deeply.

It was not until the after the activity had come to an end and the blindfolds were removed from the wives that this particular couple came to realize a profound truth. During the debriefing time of the activity, I asked the couples to describe their feelings and/or thoughts as they maneuvered through the obstacle course. At that moment, this particular wife brushed away her tears, took a long exhale, and began to explain why this activity was so impactful.

‘Ever since I was a little girl, I can remember being constantly abandoned by my father. Later, as I entered my first marriage, I experienced the same feelings of abandonment by my first husband. Shortly thereafter, I had discovered that he had been having multiple affairs without my knowledge. This ultimately led to our divorce. During that period of my life, I came to the realization that I could never trust anyone. A long-time after, I met Scott. We fell in love, and were recently married. However, my insecurities of abandonment have plagued our relationship to the point of considering divorce. However, because of this exercise, I realize now that Scott will never leave me and that I have reason to trust again.’

This profound discovery was made possible, in part, because she was able to successfully experience those same feelings of abandonment while at the same time cognitively processing new knowledge and experiences that resulted in ways much different than what she had come to expect through past experiences. As such, the critical connections between her affective and cognitive experience led to a changed behavior-trusting her husband.”

The Odyssey

The Odyssey is a mammoth and intimidating obstacle course suspended 50 feet off the ground in the canopy of the forest. During the orientation briefing, couples are given instructions about safety and the objectives of the activity. It is during this time that I also ask for volunteers to wear a biofeedback monitor on their arm, which enables me to monitor their heart rate wirelessly through a Bluetooth app on my smart phone.[1] After strapping on their safety harnesses and biofeedback monitors, the couples climb the 50-foot cargo net to the top of a small 10 x 5 ft. platform that is connected to a 300-foot tightrope wire that connects to another platform. Between the platforms contains a number of cross ropes and hanging obstacles that present a challenge for individuals to overcome. To be successful, couples rely on each other to traverse the Odyssey, which ultimately helps them to safely reach the other side.

On the second day of one the ABME programs, my wife and I had led a lesson on Disarming the Threats to Marital Oneness, which includes learning how to overcome the four threats of Invalidation, Avoidance, Negative Interpretation, and Escalation.[2] At the end of our teaching time, I led the couples to the Odyssey, which served as the experiential learning activity for this lesson.

As the couples reached the top of the first platform, I noticed the incredible fear and hesitation of one of the wives as she reached the platform. She was a petite woman in comparison to the massive physic of her husband. In particular, I noticed that her body was physically shaking and her breathing was fast and shallow. The skin tone in her face became visibly pale. I could see from my remote monitor that her heart rate had quickly escalated to 120 beats per minute, as she stood frozen atop of the first platform. From my observations, I suspected that she had reached a physiological state of DPA – Fight, Flight, or Freeze mode.

Interestingly, her husband was a defensive tight end for one of the NFL football teams. He was clearly confident and comfortable as he stepped out on the tightrope and reached back to grab the hand of his wife to assist her.

She sharply pulled back her hand and shouted, “I can’t do this! I’m turning back!”

He quickly replied, “Come on, you can do it. See, I’m doing it. Look, no hands. It’s easy. There’s nothing to fear, so what are you afraid of?”

At that moment, you could sense the tension in her voice begin to escalate to a heightened level of anger as tears began to roll down her cheek. She turned to her husband and said, “This is what it’s been like for me all throughout our relationship. It feels like you don’t care how I feel. Well, I do have feelings. And, I am terribly afraid whether you believe it or not. I’m not you, and I realize it now that you are constantly invalidating my feelings.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the forest after she had vented her frustration. Her husband stood in amazement as if her words finally pierced through his heart for the first time. At that moment, he lowered his tone and gently replied, “I am so sorry. I realize now how difficult this must be for you. All I ever wanted was to encourage you and not to hurt you.” He went on to say, “Look if you don’t want to do this, I will head back down with you. But, if you are willing to try this, I will be here to help you. We can do this together.”

Behind her tears, we all could see a small little smile come over her as she reached out to take his hand. Not long after, I observed that her heart rate had dropped well below 95 as they continued to work as a team.

During our debriefing time, he had openly discussed his reluctant nature to ever see what he was doing in their relationship as wrong. In his mind, he thought that he was encouraging his wife to embrace new challenges. He said, “I get it now. I know now that while my motivation was pure, the means for which I used to encourage my wife was actually a form of invalidation. Believe me, I don’t want to be that kind of husband.”

In my observation, the Odyssey challenge created a heightened sense of disequilibrium, which gave great cause for this couple to step out of their comfort zone, into their groan zone, in hopes of reaching their growth zone. While the actual risk was minimal (due to the safety precautions), the perceived risk was high.

The wife’s perceived risk contributed to the arousal of her sympathetic nervous system, alarming her to a sense of danger. In this physiological state of DPA, her emotions were stuck in the limbic part of her brain as she reran the scripts in her head. “Here he goes again. He’ll never change. He never cares about my feelings or what I have to offer. He only cares about himself.” However, within the context of an experiential learning opportunity, the husband was able to come to grips with his behavior and opted to convey empathy to his wife as he soothed and comforted her in a way that was different than he had ever done in the past. As a result, he helped to engage her parasympathetic system to bring her back into a state of equilibrium that enabled them both to accomplish the greater task at hand – relational oneness.

This excerpt is taken from Dr. Sumlin’s dissertation: AN EVALUATION OF THE BENEFITS OF EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING TECHNIQUES USED IN SELECTED MARITAL ENRICHMENT PROGRAMS .