Pulled Apart by Addiction

In Unhitched, couples tell the stories of their relationships, from romance to vows to divorce to life afterward.

Eli Falk and Rina Shapiro met online in 2007 through a Jewish dating website. For both, a Jewish partner was paramount. She was raised in a Modern Orthodox family; he became Orthodox in his teens after a culturally Jewish childhood.

In their first year of marriage issues of addiction and the stress of caring for an ill parent created a chaos that expounded as time passed. Though they are friends now, both say expectations brought on by their upbringing and within their communities caused them to marry prematurely.

Date of Marriage August 2009

Date of Divorce July 2017

Age When Married He 29, she 27

Age Now 40, 38

Occupations She is a certified nurse midwife. He is a caseworker for adults with disabilities.

Children None

Where did they grow up?

He in Portland, Ore., with a Yiddish-speaking, Klezmer-singing father, in a very happy two-parent home. As a teen, he attended yeshiva boarding school and planned to be a cantor. He attended college both in Israel and in New York City.

She in Skokie, Ill., in a Modern Orthodox family. The family’s entire social network was through synagogue or Jewish school. Her parent’s marriage was not happy, she said.

How did they meet?

In October 2007, both were living in Chicago and they met on the dating site JDate. They found they had many mutual friends. At the end of the first date he said he had found his “soul mate.”

“We had the Jewish stuff in common,” she said. “Eli is very soulful and our connection was easy and fun.” By the third date they were having five-hour conversations.

Why did they marry?

Many of her peers were already married, and at 27 she felt it was time. But a lot was happening.

She was graduating from nursing school and working nights. Her father was growing more ill after a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.

Then Eli was hit by a car while cycling to his job as an account manager at a major corporation. He proposed from a wheelchair as he recovered from a broken femur. Then the recession hit, he lost his job, he went on long-term disability and he began selling marijuana.

“Everything was always a fiasco,” she said. “Chaos seemed to accompany us.”

Three months before their August 2009 wedding, he was arrested for selling marijuana.

“I thought about calling off the engagement,” she said. “But the invites had gone out and I felt too much shame to cancel.”

Both say their wedding day was wonderful, though afterward they returned some of the gifts to cover his legal fees. Not everyone knew about the arrest, including some family members.

How were the first years?

They had fun, she said, but he was abusing substances. He was drinking heavily and using cocaine. She worked nights and felt his stories weren’t lining up. “I was lost,” he said, and had secrets.

First signs of trouble?

In 2010, they moved to Portland from Chicago. At first, things were O.K. He began nursing school, but in 2011, after being charged with driving under the influence, he was expelled for drug use. She took a job in Alaska for a few months to get them on their feet.

He felt ashamed, and admitted to other risky behaviors, infidelity included. In 2013 he stopped drinking and using cocaine.

Did they try to work on things? Try therapy?

They went together, once, but she began therapy on her own. Her parents divorced in 2014, then her father became very ill and moved to Portland to an assisted living facility. Eli, then out of a job, became his caretaker and oversaw his needs. She was back in Portland working long hours as a midwife.

“My whole family is thankful to Eli for taking such care with my dad, it was great for him but not great for our marriage,” she said. She wanted Eli to find a career.

“There were times I thought we would be better off apart, but there was her father to care for,” he said.

She was supporting both of them financially and felt resentful about it.

What pushed them apart?

Both say addiction. Alcoholism had been not talked about much in their Jewish communities or their families. “I thought addiction would look a certain way, but it wasn’t recognizable to me,” she said.

In late 2015 they separated and Eli moved in with his parents. By then there had been infidelity on both sides. “I felt victimized but also in love with Eli,” she said. Her father died in 2016.

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Who asked for the split?

She contacted a lawyer in August 2017 even though there were moments she still thought they might get back together.

Yet both were exhausted. “We were fighting and it took a lot to enjoy each other,” he said.

“It was hard to call it,” she said. “I wanted a family and had no role models for a happy home. I didn’t know who to ask for advice or who to emulate.”

How did they move on?

They went to a music festival in 2017 and took LSD together for “therapeutic bonding,” he said. During that weekend they cried, laughed, took care of each other and committed to a lifelong friendship.

“Every amazing moment at the festival had an equally bad moment — and then some — from our past experiences so it’s special to me that we started our new friendship with the things we probably always wanted in one another,” he said.

She made new friends through sports and hobbies. He made friends in the music community. He returned to the synagogue he had attended as a child and rediscovered his spiritual path. He’s still finding his way professionally.

“The work of taking care of Rina’s father taught me how to care for another person, it taught patience and compassion,” he said. “It was the most important experience of my life thus far.

Should they have divorced sooner?

Both say yes.

“The biggest mistake we made was getting married without a plan,” he said. “But I didn’t have the insight to know that then. We both felt pressure to marry and that wasn’t the right way to enter marriage.”

“If we hadn’t felt pressure to be married, who knows what our story would be?” she said.

Is their new life better?

For her, yes, but it’s not the life she imagined for herself. “Online dating is like going through the bins at Goodwill — you need gloves,” she said. She wants children and would be happy to settle down soon.

For him, being sober has helped him cultivate friendships. He’s involved with the Jewish Burial Society, a group of religious Jews who help prepare the dead for interment.

Would they have done anything differently?

“Had I gotten sober sooner I might be a nurse now,” he said. “My addiction hurt our marriage terribly.”

“I would have postponed the wedding,” she said. “We should have dealt with the stress and Eli’s arrest before we got married.”

Has either person changed?

Both say yes.

She is a better judge of character. “I now have radar for addiction and stability, and no patience for instability,” she said.

“At 40, I’m finally growing up and becoming happier with who I am,” he said. “My self-esteem is growing and I’m becoming reliable.”

Advice for others divorcing at their age?

Decide together how you can have a friendship, she said. They now spend Jewish holidays together, he walks her dog, and she rents an apartment that is owned by his parent. Every summer they take a camping trip together. They talk almost every week.

“We have boundaries but we have a very unique and loving situation,” she said. “I’m not big on regret. Actions have consequences, we did the best we could,” she said.

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