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Phil and Karen Rios
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Phil and Karen Rios

Turning missteps into dance steps

Marriage | Phil and Karen Rios learned to follow God’s lead after years of struggle doing life, and marriage, on their own

This article is the 32nd in a series profiling couples who have been married for at least 35 years. As sociologist Mark Regnerus writes, “Young adults want to know that it’s possible for two fellow believers to stay happy together for a lifetime, and they need to hear how the generations preceding them did it.” It is also important to see that marriages are not always happy all the time, but commitment is crucial.

He reminisced over a stripper ex-girlfriend. She believed men could not be trusted. Neither believed in the sanctity of marriage. This was Phil and Karen Rios’ marriage for 15 years. 

They married in Chicago in 1977 when Phil was 24 and Karen was 19. He had just finished serving in the Marine Corps—the alternative to a jail sentence—and Karen had just graduated high school. They both had “no idea what marriage is.” Their relationship deteriorated as they let their upbringings shape their interactions.  

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Karen was an only child and loved a quiet household and alone time with Phil. Phil loved the camaraderie of his large family with cousins always around. He has so many cousins that the first time he saw Karen at a wedding party, he thought she was one of them. Once married, he reestablished friendships with his old street buddies. Many of them were married but had girlfriends they brought along to guys’ nights out. That “confirmed the idea my mom ingrained in me to never trust men,” Karen said.

Phil pursued his old friendships and continued to spend a lot of time with his family. Karen took a backseat. His mom would often say, “You can always get another wife, but you can never get another mother.” Karen busied herself with their two daughters and managed the house. She also worked at a big law firm in Chicago. Between being mom and breadwinner, Karen became increasingly independent: “I didn’t want Phil to have any control.” 

In 1981, Phil almost died in a serious construction accident. A crane collapsed during construction of the State of Illinois building, and Phil fell 10 stories. Karen said, “All I could think about is, I didn’t kiss him good-bye that morning.” Phil said he remembers thinking while falling, “I’m going to die and my daughter’s never going to know me and Karen is going to be by herself.” Both tried to be better spouses through his year-long recovery, but soon they were back to their old ways. 

In 1990, with their marriage on the rocks, Phil and Karen went to a neighbor’s Bible study. Karen says when reading the Bible’s account of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, she “came to the realization that I was a slave to sin.” They began to read the Bible’s teachings on marriage. Phil said they realized marriage was “the most important relationship besides our relationship with Christ.”

The Rios’ both professed Christ shortly after beginning the Bible study, and their marriage changed that day. Phil said, “I always looked at Karen as my wife, but not being one flesh.” They had to make changes. Karen wrestled with letting Phil make decisions for their daughters. But she learned to use her strong will for the Lord and not to get her own way. She recognized that each aspect of their girls’ lives—discipline, education—were now both of their concerns. 

Phil says he “continues to date” his wife, taking her to the movies and salsa dancing. Phil’s mustached smile and arm around her shoulders makes Karen smile up at him as he talks about their favorite activity: “We love to dance and I had to learn to lead in that as well.”

Rachel Cooper
Rachel Cooper

Rachel is a graduate of Auburn University, where she majored in journalism, minored in business, and rode for the school's equestrian team. She is working as a WORLD intern in Asheville, N.C.

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