The way Elizabeth tells it, she and Harold "simply fell out of love."

"Our separation caught everybody by surprise," admits her husband of 11 years. "It was just one of those things."

At the time of their split in 1976, Elizabeth, 33, and Harold, 36, (not their real names) had a 2-year-old daughter, a $95,000 house in Reston and the "usual amount" of suburban furnishings and goods.

Harold contacted a lawyer ( $100 for a 45-minute consultation) who estimated legal fees for the divorce at roughly $2,500 for Harold alone.

"The outlook he painted was bleak - it sounded like a big fight," Harold recalls. "I figured there had to be a better way."

That "better way" proved to be the services of Mark Lohman, a 36-year-old ex-government researcher, who had just launched a family mediation business. One of the first practitioners in what appears to be a growing field, Lohman helps splintering spouses work together to formulate an equitable property settlement and custody agreement.

Ten meetings, two months and $350 later, Elizabeth and Harold had a notorized property settlement and custody agreement. Each spouse then hired an attorney to check the documents (cost, about $350) and had three additional meetings with Lohman to iron out minor disagreements ( $75). A lawyer put the document into proper legal form and filed for the divorce - court time about five minutes, cost $635. Total cost, about $1,400.

"Sure there were savings, but that wasn't the major reason for using a mediator," Harold says. "We're friends now, and I don't know if that would be true hard we gone through a bitter divorce.

"We wanted to part on the best possible basis, so our daughter could still have a mother and a father. We need to have contact on an ongoing basis to raise a daughter. I feel free to call and talk to my daughter daily and see her every weekend."

Compared to the tales of friends who have gone through "bloodthirsty" divorces, Elizabeth calls her situation "Easy Street."

"For one thing, I'm getting regular payments, unlike some of my friends," she says. "With a good lawyer I might have gotten a couple hundred dollars more in child care, but what's the point if [Harold] would have come out of it bitter and resentful toward me and our child?

"This way we give each other the most we can, and in the end our daughter wins."

Family mediation provides a rational, low-cost alternative to the traditional legal system which exacerbates an already difficult situation, Lohman claims.

"In the legal system each advocate pursues the goals of one client, which may have a destructive effect on the other party and on the children. A mediator is a voice of reason, who works out a fair answer that each side can live with and that is fair to the child."

Lohman, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology and education from Stanford, got the idea for family mediation after he and his wife were divorced four years ago.

"There was no real acrimony between us, but we each retained an attorney and found ourselves locked into an adversary-style relationship," he recalls. "A lot of bitterness began to develop that had consequences for our two children.

"Not only was it hard enough for them to cope with Mom and Dad being apart, now they were seeing us engaged in a brutal sort of fight. Fortunately an agreement was worked out over time and my ex-spouse and I are good friends. But we see so many of our friends engage in impulsive acts, like take all the money out of joint accounts. And to watch couples who were once in love now extremely hateful and angry is very painful."

Lohman has "mediated" for about 250 persons. While he offers mediation services for many types of family disputes, most of his work is with couples who have decided to separate.

His typical clients have an income of between $20,000 and $45,000, and roughly 10 percent reconcile after seeing him. He now charges clients on a sliding scale between $30 and $50 an hour (up from $25 three years ago), and most couples are able to reach an agreement within 6 to 10 one or two-hour meetings. Attorney's fees for a legal draft of the agreement run about $150, and other legal services are extra and vary according to the couples.

Mediation is not for every couple, he stresses, and negotiations break down with about 7 percent of the couples he sees. Angry people interested in "getting revenge" or couples who don't want to take responsibility for working out goals, budgets and plans are not good candidates.

While satisfied clients praise the mediation method, some professionals in related fields have reservations.

"Some people see mediation as taking the place of trained lawyers or counselors, but there are absolutely no requirements that these [mediators] have any training," says Garylee Cox, regional director of the American Arbitration Association which contracted with Lohman for a year to study and report on family mediation.

"To be successful requires a great breadth of knowledge. It's a very good system when it works, and I know Mark works well, but the problem would be to screen out unqualified people."

While Lohman says he's careful to stress that he is not a lawyer or counselor and phrases suggestions so they can't be misinterpreted as legal advice, some think he's walking a tightrope between the two fields.

"The only real problem is if [the mediator] does not recognize that he is not a lawyer," cautions John Long, chairman of the domestic relations committee of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia. "A mediator can function if each partner is getting legal advice. But you're already expected to have two professionals, and now you're adding a third.

"And many people going through a long divorce really need a psychiatrist or a psychologist, so that's a fourth professional."

Judson Ford Jr., 50, now of Albuquerque, N.M., thought he was going to a marriage counselor three years ago when he and his wife went to Lohman. "The services that he purports to provide were not clearly defined to me at that time," Ford says. "He does provide a needed community service, but we had no problem of child custody or splitting up property. It was a total waste of money and time under the circumstances. We could have drawn up some agreement ourselves."

Ford's estranged wife, however, called their mediation experience "human" and "amicable" compared to the "emotional and financial trauma" of a "devastating divorce" from her first husband.

"The adversary relationship makes things as painful as possible because you have to place blame, guilt and innocence," says Pat Ford. "Since there are so many marriages breaking apart, a whole different look has to be taken at divorce in order to make it as painless as possible."

Some professionals believe mediation will fulfill that need.

"Formulating contracts by using an impartial person changes things from a win-lose game to a win-win," says Dr. Bryant Wedge, a District psychiatrist. "This is waging peace, and the emotional costs in family mediation disputes are much less than those settled by adversary methods. There both sides feel like they've been taken - it's lose-lose."

A separated Virginia couple, who worked with Lohman, agree.

"Things could have been very nasty," says a 36-year-old salesman who returned from a business trip to find his wife gone, along with their two sons and all the furniture. "I had a far greater chance of getting custody (with mediation) than I would have in court, and I think the kids were more involved in the decision-making process than they would have been in the court system."

"It's been smoother and less damaging than going into a court arena and seeing who ends up as a victor," said his estranged wife, who now shares joint custody of the children. "Neither of us feels like the victor. We've reached an agreement we can live with." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Alice Kresse - The Washington Post