Addiction & Recovery, Marriage & Divorce: One Family's Story

A new book shows how recovery can help sustain meaningful, close relationships.

Posted Oct 01, 2019

In their new book, Our Happy Divorce: How Ending Our Marriage Brought Us Closer Together, Benjamin Heldfond and Nikki DeBartolo detail their path from marriage to divorce and back to genuine closeness. Their story is a dramatic one, showing that even when a marriage does not work, the relationships inherent to it—between husband and wife, between parents and children—can remain meaningful, close, and important.

Ben and Nikki’s story is inspiring: it points the way towards a happy divorce. It also is inspiring because it reveals the deleterious effects of substance use. Ben highlights the role that substances played in his divorce—and he also highlights the role that recovery played as he formed his happy post-divorce life with Nikki and their son. The following is excerpted from Our Happy Divorce with the authors' permission.

Photo reproduced with permission of authors.
Source: Photo reproduced with permission of authors.

Before I was twenty-one, as I was being consumed by my addiction, I blamed my parents (and everybody else) for my issues. I was blind to any sense of personal accountability for my actions. Seeking sobriety, I’d needed to learn a lot about boundaries, cause, and effect. A twelve-step program had taught me to be honest and showed me that I was playing a role in every situation where I felt resentment. I learned to take a look at my part in these situations, but I hadn’t done that yet with Nikki and our relationship. Looking within for the first time in quite a while, I realized that I needed to work on myself; I needed to see my whole part in this relationship. With the collaborative divorce waiting for me on the other side, I went silent while I attended ninety meetings in ninety days, worked through the steps with my sponsor, and came to realize the role I had played in the end of our marriage. 

One of the first things I recognized was how isolated from any of my support networks I had become since Nikki and I had moved to Tampa six years prior. We’d been dating for two years when her parents decided they were going to make the move, and family is everything to Nikki. There was no question in her mind—she was leaving with them, and she asked if I would come with her. I’d been to Miami before and loved it. (Note to the discerning traveler: Tampa is nothing like Miami.) I was working for Nikki’s dad, and was completely engulfed in her family. She wouldn’t have really known anyone in Tampa besides her family when she arrived, and I didn’t want her to be alone. Most of all, I was completely smitten with her. I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together—but I wanted to know we were serious and committed to each other before I moved across the country. My marriage proposal had been kind of an ultimatum. It also seemed romantic; Tampa would be the next step of our lives, a very definitive next chapter. We would get married, move, and start a family of our own. The entire relationship felt like a natural progression.

One of the most significant issues was that when we came to Florida, I’d been completely uprooted from my support system, and I had a hard time finding a local twelve-step program I liked. I was six years sober, and I’d had a big support group in San Francisco. I was used to going to five or six meetings a week, and I had sponsees and a sponsor. When I went to meetings in Tampa, they were different, and I didn’t know anybody. I felt like a newcomer again, and I had an ego—I hated feeling like I was new to this. I’d been sober for several years by the time Nikki and I met, and she’d always been very supportive and respectful of it, but in the years leading up to our divorce, I’d all but stopped going to meetings. I’d only go when I went home to San Francisco for a while, and when I did go, I stopped sharing as much. To this day, if I don't go to meetings and participate, I go batshit. It’s a very important outlet for me. I go to at least three meetings a week when I’m on my game, and I currently have three sponsees. It was time to admit to myself that, at this point, I wasn’t just facing the end of my marriage—I was dealing with untreated alcoholism.

Delcho Dichev/Pexels
Source: Delcho Dichev/Pexels

I knew I was relieving my son of an anguish that had hurt me deeply as a boy, and I was laying the groundwork for Nikki and me to be able to include our friends and extended families in our future relationship. I’ve found that it’s often easier to forgive someone who has hurt me than someone who has hurt someone I love, and in the course of any relationship, no matter how good, there are things that happen that reflect poorly on both sides. If I wanted to get serious about putting the past behind me, I knew I couldn’t plant these types of landmines in people’s memories. If the people who loved me had felt being loyal to me meant being cold to, suspicious of, or hating Nikki, they could never have given us the support that we have built our blended family on. My family and friends came to visit me a lot during the divorce, and I could just lean on them for the love and affection I needed, since I had the group to help me process through the issues. 

Working through the past, I knew I needed to understand what had happened from Nikki’s side, what role I had played, and where I was at fault. I had started recognizing that I was accountable as well while I was still holding that lawyer’s report on the airplane, which had spurred me back to my twelve-step program. I came to realize that, over time, I’d become isolated and stopped communicating with anyone, including my wife. I had to face reality—I hadn’t been sober. I was just abstinent from drugs and alcohol. When I don’t do what I need to do in order to live a sober and spiritual life, I basically take a handful of Miracle-Gro and sprinkle it all over my flaws and character defects.

When I finally took a step back and got my forty-thousand-foot view again, I could see that our marriage wasn’t ending over one action, or one week, or even one year. The bottom line was that it had really ended before it had even started. We’d both walked right through every red light the universe had put in our path. At this point, we’d been getting progressively unhappier for a long time, and we’d spent too much time apart, living separate lives. Our communications had deteriorated so drastically that it was hard to even find our comfortable, friendly zone. I’d gotten depressed and retreated inward and become emotionally absent from my wife. It wasn’t Nikki’s fault; we’d both played our parts. I needed to hold myself responsible for mine. It wasn’t my job to hold her accountable for hers. 

More on Benjamin Heldfond and Our Happy Divorce can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.