Does Divorce Mediation Work?

The short answer to the question is clear: Yes.

Here’s a summary of the current research on divorce mediation. It covers the following areas:

To avoid driving you batty as you try to read this, I’ve taken out the footnotes. Click here for the version with footnotes.

Researchers have conducted more than 50 studies since divorce mediation first appeared more than two decades ago. As one researcher puts it, the easiest research has already been done, i.e., comprehensive research on the outcomes of mediation. Enough data has been collected and enough analysis conducted to begin drawing clear conclusions about whether mediation works. Along several key axes, the answers are encouraging.

Settlement Rates

Mediation produces agreement in 50 to 80 percent of cases. This is the case whether the mediation is court-referred or privately placed, whether mediation is voluntary or mandatory, and whether the mediating couples had a history of domestic violence or intense marital conflict.

There is some evidence that settlement rates of more than 85 percent suggest a more coercive style of mediation. This is particularly likely to be a factor if settlement rates are the only criterion for judging success of mediation. In general, single-issue mediations have a lower settlement rates than mediations involving multiple issues.

Overall Client Satisfaction

Couples who mediate the issues of their divorce are significantly more likely to be satisfied with the experience of their divorce when compared with couples who have finished an adversarial divorce. At final divorce, according to one study, 69 percent of mediation respondents were somewhat to very satisfied, compared to only 47 percent of adversarial men and women.

Interestingly, this preference for mediation was not uniform. On several issues, such as the warmth and sensitivity of the professional, adequacy of information, and satisfaction with child support, there were no statistically significant differences between the perceptions of mediating and adversarial couples.

On most issues, however, such as the perceived skill level of the professional, the creativity of the professional, the effectiveness of the professional in helping clients deal with anger, the professional’s success avoiding imposing his or her viewpoint on the client, impact on the spousal relationship, satisfaction with the property settlement, satisfaction with arrangements around spousal support, satisfaction with parenting schedules and arrangements, and understanding children’s needs and issues, mediating couples reported significantly higher levels of satisfaction.

Satisfaction Among Women

In general, the difference in the levels of satisfaction with mediation among men and women is not statistically significant. This is in contrast to adversarial divorce, where men are significantly more dissatisfied than women with the process and outcome.

There has been some discussion of findings that women are disadvantaged in mediation, but that initial research has been discredited. On the whole, women in mediation express greater satisfaction with both process and outcomes than do their litigation counterparts.

Effect on Terms of Agreement

In general, mediated agreements tend to be more comprehensive than settlements reached either voluntarily or involuntarily in adversarial court. In general, mediation results in more joint legal custody compared to adversarial processes, but not necessarily a different parenting schedule. Researchers have not noted a statistical difference in the treatment of child support payments, although mediating fathers are more likely to agree to pay for “extras” for their children and are more likely to agree to help with college expenses.

Long-term Mental Health

Researchers agree that mediation does not seem to have any long-term statistically significant effect on the psychological adjustment of either divorcing couples or their children, whether the mediation is custody only or comprehensive.

Cost in Time and Money

Mediating couples tend to resolve the issues in their divorce in substantially less time than that taken by their counterparts in litigation. They also tend to spend significantly less money. In one study, couples in the adversarial sample reported spending 134% more (more than twice as much) for their divorces than those in the mediation sample. Most reports tend to find less dramatic differences, however, in the 30-40% range.

Compliance and Relitigation

Researchers generally report higher rates of compliance with mediated agreements, when compared to agreements reached in the adversarial process. This includes parenting schedules, payment of child support and spousal support, and completing the final division of property. Relitigation rates are low in general among mediated samples and are lower than in adversarial samples.

Process Studies

What remains is the more difficult and expensive task of exploring the process of mediation to learn what styles work well, and why. The little bit of research that has been completed appears to show that the mediators who are more effective in helping their clients reach agreement are more active in structuring the process, focus more on problem solving than on reconciling positions, discuss options and solutions rather than facts, and maintain control that varies depending on the characteristics of their clients.

What We Don’t Know

Research is scant to nonexistent on the following issues:

  • Should the mediator tell clients about legal issues or simply direct them to their attorneys?
  • Should lawyers be present or absent from actual mediation sessions?
  • Should the mediator welcome and deal with emotional issues or push them aside?
  • Should mediators be directive or passive?
  • Should mediators work individually or in teams?
  • Should sessions be sequential, or should mediation be conducted in a marathon format?
  • Should the parties meet together or in separate caucus rooms?
  • Should mediators be in the same racial group as their clients, or does it matter?
  • Should pure mediation be replaced with a med/arb system that gives the clients assurance of a resolution?

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