Choosing Divorce Mediation Through Statistical Analysis

Top Counseling Schools has posted an infographic titled, Does Divorce Mediation Work?, which perhaps ought to be titled, "Does Divorce Mediation Work (Well Enough)?" The graphic is chock full of great statistics, but might still leave somebody wondering whether mediation is right for them. Here is the infographic itself (shared by permission):

Somebody viewing this infographic might balk at the statistic that mediation produces agreement in 50-80% of cases. Why spend thousands of dollars on a process that might have no better chances than a coin flip?

Divorce mediation numbers are better than that.

First, it should be noted that even if 50-80% of mediated cases result in full agreement, many of the remaining cases still reach agreement on one or more issues. That means the couple has reduced the number of issues that remain to be resolved after the mediation process. If they go to court, that could mean a signficiant reduction in litigation expenses.

More importantly, the 50-80% rate of full agreement is based on reported statistics from multiple sources. It turns out that some mediators reported a 50% agreement rate, while others reported an 80% agreement rate. After the infographic, the Top Counseling Schools blog post includes a list of "traits of good mediators," including:

  • Humanity (humor, optimism, empathy, sympathy, friendliness)
  • Intelligence; adapability; problem-solving mindset
  • Professionalism

A mediator who exhibits all three of these traits is likely to have a much higher agreement rate.

Decision tree analysis favors divorce mediation.

A decision tree is a common analytical tool for comparing the measurable benefits of different courses of action.  You input the estimated likelihood of each outcome, to determine which course of action is statistically preferable. Let's do that here, using the worst-case numbers for mediation and the best-case numbers for litigation. Specifically, let's assume only a 50% success rate (i.e., full agreement) for mediation, with the mediation process costing $5,000 total and the litigation process costing $40,000 total. Let's also assume that mediating beforehand does not reduce the cost of subsequent litigation – an assumption that I believe to be false, but I don't have any way of quantifying that belief at the moment.

Here are the possible outcomes if you mediate:

  1. Mediate and reach full agreement: $5,000 (50% chance)
  2. Mediate, then litigate: $45,000 (50% chance)

The decision tree looks like this:

With a fifty percent chance of each outcome (either full agreement or further litigation), the "mediate" branch of the decision tree gives an expected cost of (0.5 x $5,000) + (0.5 x $45,000) = $25,000. The litigation branch of the decision tree has only one possible outcome: $40,000. That's a huge statistical bias in favor of mediation – and remember, this analysis used the numbers most favorable to litigation!

Divorce mediation isn't just about saving money.

Although potential cost savings is one reason to choose mediation over litigation (and for some people the only reason they need), there are other important factors to consider. With the right mediator, spouses will learn constructive ways of working through issues, and will gain valuable insights into each other's goals and interests in the process. Those tools will serve them well even if mediation does not yield a full agreement.

If there are children involved, mediation could mean the difference between effective, respectful coparenting and parents who can't speak to each other anymore. Note the huge differences in child support compliance rates in the infographic – 80 percent versus merely 40 percent! As long as there are no allegations of child abuse or neglect, mediation or collaborative law should absolutely be a serious consideration for any divorcing couple with children.

I love science and evidence-based analysis. If you can show me the numbers, I am far more likely to support a view than if you just tell me it "feels" right (although that is an important factor, too). Looking at the numbers here, it is very clear that divorcing couples should consider mediation. It is less expensive, faster, and produces agreements with much higher compliance rates.

It's not a panacea, but it sure does look good on paper.