John and Karen Colvin
The Colvins have been married 27 years. In the beginning, she says, “I didn’t know I was in love right away. It took a little time. I was in high school and he’d been through college.” What did they see in each other? Karen says John saw what no one else took the time to see–brains behind the pretty face. “He validated my intellect,” she says. John quips, “I just wanted to get laid.”
But John points with pride to how–after her accident–she learned to drive again, founded the National Spinal Cord Injury Hotline and returned to nursing school where she earned her bachelor’s, then her master’s. Now she’s working on her doctorate and teaches at a community college and–oh yes–she somehow found time to raise a son, Dick, now in law school, and a daughter, Tracey, who’s in grad school.
They talk about their marriage as a journey of life partners. They’ve learned how to live with each other, no small feat for any couple, but 27 years is proof of major commitment, especially when you factor in a spinal cord injury at the nine-year mark.
“Some of the pressures a lot of people have–living in a mobile home or an apartment or three-story house–we only had for a limited time,” says Karen. “Then we built an accessible home.” A shower room, a lift that goes between floors, all of this makes things easier, says Karen, “but that doesn’t give you love.”
And love and mutual respect is what a long-lasting marriage is all about. “He’s extraordinary,” says Karen. “He doesn’t understand the ability to abandon anything. We’ve had a great deal of fun, passion.”
From John’s point of view, Karen’s accomplishments reveal her character. “When you talk about that caliber of a person, then it becomes obvious why we’ve stayed together for 27 years.”
Over the years the two have minimized the effects of Karen’s disability. When John returns from work–he’s a real estate developer–he knows Karen’s limits. “I don’t have to ask him to cut up food for me or hold a bottle of soda,” says Karen. “He helps me in the shower, and we make that our personal time. We don’t make that our bitch session. We talk about our day, what’s going on at work, family life, political conversation.” And even though Karen has to put up with pain in her legs like many with spinal cord injuries, she doesn’t complain about it. “We don’t let that stuff dominate our lives.”
One of the benefits of living long-term with a spouse who has a disability is learning about inevitable difficulties associated with aging. John, now 55, says Karen’s disability “has made it easier for me to face growing old. I’ve had to confront accommodations for disability since I was 36.”
Karen is quick to point out that they are not perfect. “Like every other guy, he can be a real ass, and I can be a major bitch. It’s a real relationship with its ups and downs.”
But now they have the Oprah show to look back on. “I’ve gotten e-mails from all over the world, including from disabled people,” Karen says. “It was wonderful for our marriage, it was wonderful for John, and it was wonderful for people all over the world who saw that a marriage with a disability can survive a long time.”
Acceptance, Humor and Date Night
“There’s a myth that marriage equals bliss, says Theresa Karanik, a clinical social worker, married 17 years to Alan Toy, an actor and project director for Living Independently in Los Angeles. “In reality,” says Theresa, “marriage is a difficult enterprise.”