Let’s Get Wonky: The Research on Mediation? Yup–It Really Works

There’s nothing I find more satisfying than believing in something–and then knowing that the research backs me up.

When it happens the other way it’s a total bummer.

But I happen to be in luck on the topic of mediation, for not only do I think it’s a better way to go through your divorce than an adversarial or litigated process–apparently studies find that, overall, it is a better approach. It’s really my lucky day.

I’m tempted to really roll out the barrel and share every study I’ve found with you–but I’ll take pity, and just hand-select a few that indicate the proven advantages of divorce mediation. (I’ll expect undying gratitude in return.)

Joan B. Kelly, Executive Director of the Northern California Mediation Center and past president of the Academy of Family Mediators, wrote in her seminal paper “A Decade of Divorce Mediation Research” published in the July 1996 issue of Family and Conciliation Courts Review a summary of what 10 years of research on mediation has demonstrated vis-a-vis litigation.

Kelly suggests there are several important points to consider in arriving at a conclusion about whether mediation is an effective alternative to litigation. [She actually suggested that there were 8 main questions to be addressed but, in an effort to spare my readers–and just get to the point–I didn’t go through all 8 of her points. I do, however, recommend, if you’re interested in the topic, that you look at her paper and see a more complete analysis of the effectiveness of mediation. When you’ve got the time, drop by at Decade of Divorce Mediation Research.]

The rest of you can thank me for only addressing a  few points that I find particularly relevant here.

First, is mediation effective for divorce?

In Kelly’s meta analysis, where she examined research results from America, England, Canada, and some from Australia, she discovered that, statistically, couples reach agreement in divorce mediation from 50-85% of the time, with most studies in the mid to upper range of that percentage.

What that clearly indicates is that, out of 100 couples set to divorce–who are willing to mediate, we must remember–only between 15-50 them are forced into the legal system to work out their disagreements through the courts. Thus, clearly, mediation is an effective means of dealing with the clashing world views brought to the table by a divorcing couple.

Now, how efficient is mediation in terms of time and expense?

The best study on this issue actually addressed custody disputes, as opposed to a simple divorce settlements.  In an unusual structure, there was actually random assignment of couples into mediation or litigation. In that study by Robert E. Emery [remember him from last post?] in 1994, published as a book entitled Renegotiating Relationships: Divorce, Child Custody and Mediation, Emery found that parents who were assigned to mediation reached resolution of dispute significantly more quickly than litigation parents, with–and this is pretty good, you’ve got to admit–mediation taking less than half the time of litigation, and costing less [see the astonishing savings mediation can offer in previous post].

Even in the case of the mediating couples who fail to reach an agreement (this does happen, you know, much as so many people would like to assure you that mediation is “no fail”), they were in turn more likely to settle before trial than litigating parents.


So far I’m pretty well-sold, I must say.

But wait, as they commercials, say–there’s more! Turns out that the mediation agreements have greater degree of  compliance than the divorce decree, whether that is in terms of child custody, financial arrangements, or spousal and child support. Emery found this in his work, as did Howard Irving and Michael Benjamin in 1992 in their study, “Research in family mediation: Review and implications.”

Andrew Schepard in his paper ” Kramer vs. Kramer Revisited,” put out by the Pace Law Review in the summer of 2007, writes  that parents are more likely to honor the terms of the mediated agreement “. . . largely because they feel they have a voice in its formulation. Parenting plans resulting from mediation also tend to be more detailed than those resulting from negotiations alone or imposed by a court, reducing the likelihood of future disputes.” A point for this side–there is only so much you can have your lawyers cram and stuff into a divorce decree–eventually it becomes ridiculous–while mediation settlements can  include many more specifics.

My take? Pretty nice.

 So what’s left to ask? Well, something pretty obvious, I’d say. It all sounds great, doesn’t it? BUT. . .

What do the couples who have undergone it feel about the process? [Aha–they don’t just love me for my sparkling looks, in my practice–it’s mainly for the perspicacity of my brain, as you must have noticed by now.]

So, Emery looked at this in his 1994 book, too, and Joan Kelly herself examined it in her article, “Divorce mediation: Characteristics of clients and outcomes” in Mediation Research’s 1989 issue.

Well, both Kelly and Emery independently found that studies comparing mediation and litigation couples consistently found that the mediation clients were more satisfied with the final outcome of the process than those who had worked out their settlements in court.

Probably if I asked you why you think parents found mediation more gratifying you could come up with a number of ideas. In fact, try it now, before you move on to the next paragraph. What is it about mediation that yields greater satisfaction?

Ok–you’re on your honor that you really tried to answer that. But I hope you did, so you can compare the answers that mediating partners gave for what they found helpful in mediation, that would not have been available in adversarial litigation.

So my guess is your ideas pretty much match what research shows: people appreciated  the ability to communicate to their soon-to-be-ex-spouse in a safe and contained setting [once lawyers enter, your communication with your spouse becomes extremely limited], they appreciated being able to express their viewpoint and ge heard, they were pleased with the chance to talk about the children and have their concerns validated.

All makes pretty good sense to me, and I’d say, ‘sign me up!’–

but as a mediator I’m already signed up. And glad to be.


  • If you’ve talked yourself out of mediation for one reason or another, you really must take a look at Eight Myths of Divorce  Mediation  to set yourself straight.
  • Another article worth looking at–this a 2001 piece by Emery et al–is Child Custody Mediation and Litigation (Emery 2001). Detailed, well-documented and thoroughly researched, this study has a lot to say about the status of mediation and what current studies–and meta-studies–show.
  • Joan Kelly: Divorce Research Inspires Start in Mediation. Take a look at Joan Kelly herself and hear how her own research led her to become a mediator. Listen in at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWMAYiCIEgo.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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