I Met My Soul Mate in Rehab

David Dworkin
8 min readJun 2, 2020

How did you meet? It’s a common question when couples get together for the first time. I love being asked that, because I get to say, “we met in rehab.” In the recovery community, it represents a one-way trip to relapse with a brief and toxic encounter along the way. I wait a second before I explain, while my wife listens patiently with amused tolerance.

We did meet in rehab; not in the treatment unit but in the family group, and neither of us was looking for a relationship. We were there because we were desperately trying to save our marriages and our families. Tragically, few in the grip of addiction get clean and sober because of their family’s love and desire.

Our journey to that room was filled with broken promises and broken hearts. We couldn’t have been more unlikely candidates for any relationship at all. I had no idea how much worse it was going to get. Still in front of me was two years of unemployment, a lost home and a shattered family.

The rehab that our spouses dropped out of had a family support group that encouraged loved ones to continue to attend at no charge, even after the person being treated had left the program. Ultimately, it was meant to be a path to other support groups like Alanon.

The addict or alcoholic gets all the credit for the breakup, but it truly is a family disease. An Alanon credo is that “we didn’t cause it, we can’t cure it and we can’t control it.” It’s true of the addiction, but not the crazy. My controlling, contempt and anger, often in the name of “saving my family” was a big part of the toxic dynamic.

Over a year after meeting Hayley at the family group, I asked if she would like to go out for coffee. “I don’t drink coffee,” she said with a smile that defied the perceived blow-off. “Well, how about tea,” I responded. “I’d love to have tea with you.”

Coy and quick. It’s a killer combination for me. My casual, confident response grabbed her too. We talked for hours about our kids, our disappointed dreams and our cautious hope for the future. At one point, she mentioned that a friend was encouraging her to date again, and she thought she might be ready. We talked about what we were looking for in a new partner, and our commitment to not getting remarried. “Would you be interested in dating me,” I asked. “Yes,” she said. Then she left town.

Two weeks later, we kissed for the first time. I felt like I lost my balance and fell into her bright, blue eyes. It’s an amazing feeling, though not an indication of a lasting, happy and healthy relationship.

We couldn’t have been more different. My kids went to private school. Hers were home-schooled. I wore French cuffed shirts. She made many of her own clothes. She was a liberal Democrat, I was a Republican, though she didn’t know it until well into our relationship. On learning it, I looked into her prolonged, blank stare and asked, “is that a deal breaker?”

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I never considered it an option.”

Despite all that, the chemistry was strong. It usually fades over time, but her travel schedule stretched it out for years. As a visual merchandising director for an expanding retail chain, she traveled a lot. We took it slowly, but by July we were in the middle of what we assumed was just a summer fling. Then it was Fall, and Winter. Whatever we were doing, it wasn’t a summer fling anymore.

In between our weekend love affair, I had joint custody of my kids and was committed to learning how to cook in a kitchen, not just on a grill. I wanted to be a divorced dad who could fill a house with the smell of home cooked meals instead of carryout containers. When I told Hayley, she smiled and said real cooks learn to bake first because it’s harder.

The gauntlet was thrown. I taught myself to bake bread from scratch. I didn’t buy a loaf of store-bought bread for years. I was obsessed with Julia Child, who hadn’t learned to cook until she was nearly 40. I made Hayley Julia’s Steak Diane; she made me her family’s secret recipe for Baked Stuff Lobster. Watching her calmly thrust an 8-inch chef’s knife into a live lobster blew my mind. She was no Annie Hall.

My oldest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah had featured a party worthy of the Kardashians. Now I was broke, and we could barely afford a simple dinner at the Temple for my youngest daughter. Together, Hayley and I baked Martha Stewart’s wedding cake and made 100 homemade cupcakes. I was learning how to recognize what was really important.

We nearly hit a dead end when she told me that her company had offered her a promotion which she was seriously considering. If she took it, she was moving to Chicago for at least two years and probably longer. We agreed our evolving relationship was no reason to say no, and she took the job. But I had no interest in a long-term, long-distance relationship, and there was no way I was leaving my kids in DC to go anywhere. I decided we should break up.

Hayley couldn’t understand why I would do that. I was still incredibly self-protected and couldn’t imagine being hurt on anyone’s terms but my own. We agreed to see my therapist to discuss it before we made it final.

After ten minutes, my therapist looked at me and said, “are you crazy?” “Excuse me?” I said. She was adamant. “You guys clearly have something special. It may not survive a long-distance relationship, but why pre-judge that? Do you really think it’s going to hurt any more or less?”

So, I reluctantly began what became a four-year long-distance relationship. She came to DC on travel at least once a month, sometimes twice. I flew to Chicago in between, and once we met in Cleveland for a mid-point pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It was the best thing that could have happened to us. Absence really does make heart grow fonder, and every time we got together it was like a new first date. I also had more time and emotional bandwidth to focus on my kids who were enduring all of the painful clichés of joint custody like negotiated holidays and two sets of bedrooms.

I was also still unemployed and felt like a huge failure. The financial crisis devastated millions of lives and gutted my industry. I never imagined I could survive the prolonged sense of humiliation. But through it all, there she was. Loving me, accepting me, seeing things in me I couldn’t see myself.

Marriage crept back into my relationship context, and on one of our trips, I asked her to marry me. Silence. “Why do we need to do that,” she asked.

I kept asking, and she kept responding that she loved me and that was enough. After more than a year, she finally said “I would love to marry you.” I ran outside and shouted at the top of my lungs, “she said yes!”

But the prospect of marriage brought with it another obstacle. Just as my career was recovering, I was asking her to put the brakes on hers by moving back to Washington. The stress of all of the compromises and years of separation was also growing, and the risk of tripping into something irreparable was looming.

“Go into relationship counseling with me, or we’ll never make it,” I said. She had no interest in therapy, but my case was compelling. We were both experts in being in a bad marriage for twenty years. If we were going to get married, we needed to learn how to be in a good one. We needed to learn how to navigate power struggles and compromise. We signed up for an Imago Getting the Love You Want relationship workshop.

Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy says, “talking is the most dangerous thing we do.” In Imago therapy, we learned how to communicate in an entirely different way. We began to offer weekly appreciations, which we mirrored to each other.

“I really appreciated it when I mentioned we were out of eggs and you pulled into the grocery store on the way home without me asking. I know you were tired, and I felt heard and cared for.”

“What I heard you say is that you really appreciated it when I pulled into the grocery store on the way home without you asking me after you said we were out of eggs for the morning. Did I get that?”

“Almost. I knew you were tired, and I felt heard and cared for.”

“You knew how tired I was, and it made you feel heard and cared for. Did I get that?”

“Yes, you did.”

It sounds artificial, but how many times do we appreciate something about our partner and say it in our head, not out loud? We expect them to understand but how can they know how we feel without us telling them? We are not mind-readers.

It’s one thing to have the spark, and another to maintain the flame. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Mike Campbell explained that he had gone bankrupt “two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Marriage is like that too, and I was terrified that it would happen to us. It hasn’t.

The only thing I can come up with that explains the joy we still have in our relationship after nearly 15 years, ten of them married, are the weekly appreciations. In over 500 Sundays, we have shared appreciations with each other on nearly all of them. It’s like a relationship reset every week.

People sometimes ask us how we made it through so much to build such a joyful new life. I lost my business and, for a time, my career during the worst financial crisis in nearly a century. We both lost our homes, our marriages and our savings. These things seemed to define us, but they didn’t. Only in losing them did we find each other, and ourselves. In that respect, there really was no better place for us to meet than in rehab.

Voltaire said that “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.” I heartily agree and have the marriage to prove it. I found my soul mate in a rehab, and I still ask her to marry me at least once a week.



David Dworkin

David M. Dworkin is a housing advocate, avid photographer and former diplomat and journalist. He lives with his wife, Hayley Hoffman, in Washington DC.