In the Silence Between the Words: The Adult Children of Divorce

By John T. Syrtash, Associate, Garfin Zeidenberg LLP, a Toronto family law lawyer for the past 39 years.
“One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences.
Often secrets are not revealed in words; they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is un­sayable between two people.”
– John O’Donohue (1956-2Q08) Irish poet, author, priest, and philosopher From Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Common sense informs most of you that Divorce hurts children of younger years for obvious reasons. As a family law lawyer in Toronto, I have seen this frequently, but the challenges also extend to the adult children of divorce. Formerly, it was thought that breaking up a bad marriage was much better for children than waiting until they grew up, at least until they moved out. Long-term studies, such as Judith Wallerstein’s “Legacy of Divorce” have proven that in the absence of violent/ abusive situations, this myth may be very problematic. Quite the opposite is true. Children of divorced parents have been shown to be at far greater risk of divorce themselves, criminal behaviour, substance abuse, and other problems than those kids whose parents with troubled relationships who either stayed together or deferred separation until the children had moved out permanently.

However, far fewer studies have been published on the effect of divorce on adult children. Children who have moved out or have “grown-up” often suffer in silence when their parents separate. Although no longer living at home, many parents of such adult children forget the boundaries they taught their kids by putting them “in the middle” of disputes arising from the separation or by using their children as shoulders on which to cry. Such behaviour often shatters an adult child’s own sense of stability and identity with which he or she has identified all his/her life. That stability is based on the marriage that nurtured their very being and much of who they have become. By attempting to force such an adult child to take sides, offspring can develop an enormous degree of stress, leading to emotional problems and occasionally, the stress in their own marriages. Sometimes such stress can be a factor leading to divorce with their own spouses. Moreover, in cases where an adult child has already been alienated when young by one parent against the other, such conduct by parents can further intensify such feelings of alienation.

So what to do? Is there such a thing as a healthy divorce?

In the quote above, Irish poet John O’Donohue describes what two friends mean to each other, how the secrets of friendship blossom “between the words.” It means to “listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences.” In a remarkable Sabbath morning speech, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Thornhill’s BAYT synagogue recently remarked that it is between the words where one finds God. As applied to the adult children of divorce, I interpret such wisdom to mean that in order to protect your adult child’s stability and sense of self-worth: keep your mouth shut. No matter how close you may be to your kids and no matter how badly you want them as your “allies”: don’t. As difficult as this is to read, a child does not owe you any greater allegiance when you separate.

Your only comment? “Mom/Dad and I will work things out. That’s all you need to know.” And you say it even if your spouse fails to play by the same rules. Why? Because the silence between each of those words will be quietly understood as your gift of love as a parent, no different than the tuition or hockey fees or braces you paid so long ago, or maybe it was just those bedtime hugs and night ­time stories. It is “unsayable” because your silence is your expression of parental love and selflessness. The adult child will listen very intently to that silence. He or she will appreciate it more than you can imagine.
Meanwhile go hire a professional therapist and lawyer to whom you should complain, not your adult child. Don’t “parentify.” Be a parent.

John T. Syrtash B.A. (Hon.) LL. background:
Invited Speaker on Bill 78, Proposed Changes to Canada’s Divorce Act, House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights (November 26, 2018)
Editor of the Syrtash Family Law Newsletter, Lexis Nexis
President of the Syrtash Spousal Support Database
Author of Religion and Culture in Canadian Family Law, Butterworths
Author A Calendar of Northern Fables, Amazon
John Syrtash is an associate and family law lawyer with the Toronto firm of GARFIN ZEIDENBERG LLP.
Neither GARFIN ZEIDENBERG LLP nor John Syrtash is liable for any consequences arising from anyone’s reliance on this material, presented as general information and not as a legal opinion.
John T. Syrtash, Associates
Phone: (416) 512-8000 ext 410; Direct (416) 642-5410; email:

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