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Science in Support of Mediation

Jim Robenalt Dec. 13, 2023

Mediation has been shown in studies to be superior to litigation in dealing with divorce cases.

There are plenty of emotional descriptors in support of the decision to mediate your divorce. It can be described as the more constructive, less traumatic way to end your marriage and transition your family. But there is also scientific research to suggest that mediation is a superior alternative.

In past decades, various studies have compared the relative effectiveness of mediation with that of litigation. These studies point to the overall conclusion that divorce mediation outperforms litigation as measured across a variety of subject areas:

  • A 1988 study, for instance, found that participants in divorce mediation were much more satisfied with a process that helped them focus on the needs of their children;[1]

  • A subsequent study in 1989 found that participants experienced a greater degree of perceived fairness, believing they had equal influence over the terms of their divorce agreement. There was a perception that spousal support was fair and the mediator was helpful in negotiating a mutually desirable custody and visitation plan;[2]

  • In 1991, researchers found that mediation participants had significantly fewer court hearings and reached agreement significantly more quickly than a comparison litigation group.[3]

Overall, research has demonstrated that mediation affords participants greater satisfaction with the divorce process, improved spousal relationships, and more attention paid to the best interests of their children.

However, it was until 2010, that Lori Anne Shaw, a professor at Abilene Christian University, essentially pulled the research together with a “meta-analysis” (using statistical methods) to more precisely measure the effect of mediation as compared to litigation. Read more about this study.

In her methodology, she isolated 5 “usable studies” which yielded a sample size of 569 divorce cases. Her statistical analysis measured a host of variables including process satisfaction, outcome satisfaction, emotional satisfaction, overall satisfaction, impact on spousal relationship, and increased understanding of children’s needs.

Professor Shaw concluded that “across the five included studies, mediation has been shown quantitatively to be superior to litigation in dealing with divorce cases.” In her findings, she notes that mediation and litigation are similar in that both processes are aimed at achieving a uniform result: a settlement agreement.  Yet mediation provides a process which participants find more emotionally satisfying and which produces “tailor-made” customized agreements to meet the particular needs of a divorcing couple.

To be certain, mediation is not an ideal solution in every instance. As Professor Shaw notes, there are ill-suited cases involving domestic violence. Mediation is also a poor alternative if one spouse is merely seeking to save the marriage rather than to separate.

Yet with these potential downsides properly accounted for, the research demonstrates that mediation can be a superior alternative that affords couples greater emotional satisfaction in the process and a more direct role in negotiating the future affairs of their family

[1] Pearson, J., and N. Thoennes, “Mediation in Custody Disputes.” Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 4(2): 203–216 (1988)

[2] Kelly, J. B., & Gigy, L., “Measuring clients’ perceptions and satisfaction.” Mediation Quarterly, 19, 43–52 (1988)

[3] Emery, R. E., Matthews, S. G., & Wyer, M. M., “Child custody mediation and litigation: Further evidence on the differing views of mothers and fathers.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59(3), 410–418 (1991)