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 Marital Mediation: Where Are We Going?

by Susan Boardman

In an effort to try to answer the question that serves as the title of this article, I would like to briefly summarize some of the issues with which I see practitioners coping and suggest areas for future research. 

Differentiation of Marital Mediation as a Discipline. 

There are a number of us, both attorney-mediators and mental health practitioner-mediators, that have been struggling for some time now on how to differentiate the process called by the different names: Marital Mediation, Intimate Partner Mediation, Mediation to stay Married, and Relationships Mediation, from Marital Therapy or Counseling.  There is discussion on whether, in fact, they are different processes (see Boardman, 2013 for a previous analysis).

In a recent discussion, entitled “Applying Family Therapy to Family Mediation”, part of the virtual 2021 APFM conference in October, panelists talked about the overlap of these interventions, as well as some of the differences. Several well-known, senior practitioners in the field participated and discussed how they practice either or both of these interventions. The discussion yielded some differences in approach partly due to training (while all four participants are mediators, one is an attorney, and the other three are therapists), and partly due to what one participant called “brand” (defined here as posing questions and trying approaches that have worked well in the past and fit with the practitioners’ orientation and personality). There was discussion at that time of continuing future APFM sessions to focus more on delineating Marital Mediation from Marital Therapy, and trying to more thoroughly answer “how to do” Marital Mediation questions.

Part of the difficulty in trying to differentiate Marital Mediation (we can’t even agree on a single name!) from Marital Therapy is that people from different backgrounds are practicing the craft. This enriches the field tremendously, but also yields different “lenses” for viewing the nature of the work, making a common language/wording/framing more difficult. For example, attorneys doing legal work and divorce mediation share a common training and frame, as do mental health professionals who do couples counseling (although training differs by type of counseling). Another difficulty in differentiating the processes has to do with goals. The goals for divorce mediation are quite clear (separate the couple/family as gently and fairly as possible), while the goals for some types of couples counseling are also clear (facilitate better communication and resolve conflicts to increase relationship satisfaction). But these are also the goals for Marital Mediation! One difference, I have argued, is the utilization of a different methodology.

Methodology Differences Between Marital Therapy (MT) and Marital Mediation (MM)*

As I have written previously (Boardman, 2013), there are several differences between these two processes.

  1. Broader, more holistic focus versus narrow, specific problem-solving focus. MT typically focuses on identifying conflict patterns in a relationship and why they behave this way. Therapy involves diagnosis and treatment of personality and relationship problems. Therapists are able to identify symptoms of mental disorder and neurotic behavior and use analytical skills to help parties understand their behavior and alleviate marital discord. MM focuses on identifying specific conflict patterns and uses mediation to develop a template of alternative, more constructive behaviors to guide future interaction as agreed upon by both parties. The former process has more of a long-term, holistic focus, while MM has a more short-term, immediate focus.
  2. Session and Intervention Time-Frame. Another difference lies in the amount of time people spend in session with professionals. MT typically occurs in the classic “fifty-minute hour” or at most, an actual sixty-minute hour, while the usual time frame for MM is two hours. At the same time, clients can spend years in therapy, while people in MM rarely spend more than seven sessions with the mediator. This reflects the basic difference in focus expressed above. It takes time to come to learn a person’s personality, while less time is required in the long-haul to identify and problem-solve conflict behaviors/solutions, although it does require more time in session to allow the mediator to do the work of developing mediated agreements.
  3. Written Agreement Outcome. MT typically does not end up with a written agreement between parties, while that is the ultimate goal of the MM process. It is not necessarily a legally binding agreement but may be. Attorney-mediators may end up with pre- or post-nuptial agreements, while mental health professionals create a document that is more psychological in power.
  4. Differences in Professional Training.  While MM is performed by both attorneys and mental health professionals, MT is only performed by those with training in mental health areas, such as marriage and family therapy, social work, and psychology.

Timing of the MM Process as an Intervention.

One of the issues that I sometimes hear mediators struggling with involves the issue of timing. Often mediators will lament that by the time the couple comes to them, they are so deeply entrenched in a negative communication/behavior spiral that it is very difficult to change behavior. This is, I believe, frequently a result of the relatively few people practicing MM, and it’s not really being known as an alternative earlier on to therapy or divorce. I am not implying as I stated earlier (Boardman, 2013), that MM is a superior process to therapy, only that it is different, serving different purposes, which I touched on above. In fact, I believe that often the most effective intervention is a combination of therapy and mediation. As one of the panelists from the recent APFM conference recommended, mediators should“refer out” to therapists, if needed, both so that mediators “stay in their lane” of training, and provide the clients the services they may need if they are not able to provide such services. Such referring out should work both ways, that is therapists referring to mediators as well as the reverse.

Difficulties with the timing of MM as an effective process can not only involve the clients’ previous experiences (or lack thereof) with prior interventions (sometimes they are past the stage of constructive intervention), but the quality and appropriateness of the intervention itself. As I mentioned earlier (Boardman, 2013), according to Deutsch (1973) and his Crude Law of Social Relations, “the characteristic processes and effects elicited by a given type of social relationship (cooperative or competitive) tend also to elicit that type of social relationship” (p.365). Therefore the strategy of coercion, threat, and deception results from, and results in, a competitive relationship, whereas the strategy of mutual problem solving, persuasion, openness, and mutual enhancement elicits, and is elicited from, a cooperative relationship. Given these social psychological principles it stands to reason that the earlier an intervention occurs, before a long history of destructive behavior is experienced, the better the chance an intervention will be successful. 

As Gottman (2015) describes, couples who exhibit serious difficulty in their relationship often engage in certain forms of negativity he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These include Criticism (global, negative feelings expressed about the other’s character or personality), Contempt (disrespect arising from a sense of superiority over one’s partner), Defensiveness (defending oneself against blame, which just escalates conflict), and eventually, Stonewalling (avoiding or ignoring the conflict/partner).  Determining where the couple is in their communication and conflict resolution patterns helps to determine their ability, even with help, to solve their problems (and hence where they might be psychologically in the separation process).

Gottman (2015) further divides problems in to solvable and unsolvable problems. Solvable problems tend to be less intense than perpetual problems because the focus is only on a particular dilemma or situation, without an underlying conflict that is fueling the dispute. They are more amenable to negotiation or manipulating situational constraints that contribute to the conflict. For example, a solvable problem might include a conflict about how to get a meal on the table (in a relationship where it has traditionally been the wife’s domain), and still find time for her to write an article with an impending deadline. 

However Gottman argues that if a couple doesn’t find a way to compromise on resolving the problem, they are likely to become increasingly resentful and entrenched in their positions. The conflict could deepen and take on a more symbolic meaning evolving into a perpetual problem. Perpetual problems take on a gridlocked attribute: the couple has the same conversation over the issue again and again. As one person mentioned to me “we’ve been together nine years and have argued over the same thing for eight.” It usually involves a deeper, more engrained difference in temperament, personality, values or upbringing. Because the couple gets gridlocked in their discussions, making no headway, they feel increasingly hurt, frustrated, and distrustful of each other. The four horsemen become increasingly more prevalent when they argue, while humor and affection become less so. While Gottman predicts divorce to be more likely for couples with perpetual problems who engage in destructive problem-solving and communication, he also describes those who are satisfied in their marriages even with perpetual problems because they have learned to deal with these problems so that they don’t become overwhelming by using humor and keeping them in their place. They keep acknowledging the problem and talking about it/trying to work it out, acknowledging that some problems are inevitable and adopting strategies and routines that help ameliorate them.

I raise the aforementioned communication issues because it deals directly with both the type of intervention as well as the timing of the intervention that needs to be introduced to be successful. One of the frequent comments made in the 2021 APFM conference session was the requirement of “going where the clients want to go.” In other words, why have they come to you for help, and what do they want to see happen? Some clients come to you from years of therapy that “did not work” for one reason or another. They are looking for something different, and MM with its focus on immediate, short-term, concrete behavioral problem-solving ending in a written mediated agreement may appeal to them. Others may need more intervention perhaps involving both MM and MT. Still others may not be interested in MM, wanting to focus on therapy only.

I have begun to think of MM as one end of an intervention spectrum, if you will. In its least complicated form, MM as a process is described above: focused, short-term, utilizing a neutral mediator and mediation techniques to create a written, mediated template of agreed-upon behaviors in order to resolve conflict going forward. This model works well no matter the background of the mediator; one could focus on financial issues, legal issues, and/or psychological issues. As you move toward a more complicated intervention model, based on client needs for addressing more destructive communication and conflict resolution styles, and perpetual problem patterns, one should perhaps include more therapeutic interventions (depending on the training of the mediator) and communication training, or some combination of MM and MT done by different professionals if necessary. Of course this raises the issue of how to coordinate interventions, perhaps increased cost to the client, and referral/collaboration issues. I would welcome increased collaboration between professionals, something a number of us have felt lacking – more so in some regions and states than others. Collaboration between professionals could only increase the richness and efficacy of the interventions we offer to clients. 

In summary, I believe there are a number of areas that need to be more thoroughly addressed in our quest to fully define MM as a separate process, especially from a research prospective. These include: 

  1. More carefully defining exactly what we can offer prospective clients, based on our training and the needs of the couple. This is important with respect to the idea of “staying in our lane” concerning our training/experience, and perhaps building up our referral networks if we feel the clients need a more complicated intervention. The focus should be on what the clients want and need, not trying to build our own practices at the expense of an effective intervention. 
  2. More comprehensively advertise MM as a legitimate process that should exist in its own right, perhaps as a first intervention, and I am talking here MM in its least complicated form. If we could get MM as well-known as its counterpart, MT, than perhaps more people might reach for the process earlier on instead of waiting or using other interventions, thereby passing the point of “critical intervention success” (think of Mort Deutsch’s “Crude Law of Social Relations”) where they have become so mired in destructive communication cycles and mistrust to the point that any solvable problems that may have been more easily dealt with earlier have turned into unsolvable problems. Mediation is not therapy and it brings its own momentum in solving problems, but it is much less likely to be successful operating in an established atmosphere of mistrust and poor communication. One of the advantages of advertising MM is the ability to present the process in the more neutral light of “problem-solving”, not a therapeutic intervention to “fix a problem”, which can be threatening to people, especially many men.
  3. Conduct more research on MM: what approaches seems to work better with what type of problems, and what type of clients? What do practitioners find helpful in practicing their craft, and what has been frustrating? Answers to these questions help us to further refine our understanding of the MM process and improve what we have to offer.
  4. Compile a national, if not international, list of people who offer MM (or would like to) so that interested parties could better correspond/share information/learn from one another. This obviously is being done within different organizations, but I believe a more comprehensive list would be useful. It would help “spread the word” about MM and build referral networks.

MM is a relatively newer intervention than more established practices like MT or divorce mediation. However, even after over 17 years of practice when I talk about doing MM I still hear people say to me, “oh you mean marital counseling.” This has to stop. I am excited by the possibilities of continued work in this area, and helping to further establish MM as a useful intervention to reduce conflict and help bring couples closer together.

*I have consistently used the term Marital Mediation in this article since I have previously published material referring to this process. In addition, for the same reason I am continuing to use the terms Marital Counseling and Marital Therapy interchangeably, since as I previously explained, the terms are often used interchangeably in public with not much difference in meaning.


Boardman, S. K. (2013). Marital mediation: A psychological perspective. Conflict Resolution Quarterly 31(1), 99-108.

Deutsch, M. (1973). The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gottman, J. M. and Silver, Nan (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony.


Susan K. Boardman

Susan K. Boardman received her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Columbia University.  As a psychologist, she has specialized in family mediation.   She served on the board of the Connecticut Counsel for Divorce Mediation and Collaborative Practice for five years. Her recent publications include “Personality and Conflict” in The Handbook of… MORE

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