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Bay Area Family Attorneys > Blog > Divorce > When is a Marriage “Irretrievably Broken”?

When is a Marriage “Irretrievably Broken”?


Oftentimes, many strategic decisions need to be made in the course of finalizing a divorce. One of the first decisions, after the important decision to file, is to determine the grounds for divorce. As California is a “no fault” state, “irreconcilable differences” is, by far, the most common legal ground stated by parties.

A marriage can end for any number of reasons. Oten, however, there is no smoking gun. California law recognizes that there is no need to state “fault” or reason when a marriage has broken. One common term used in the media to describe high-profile marriages where the couple has grown apart is that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” While this is a vague term, it generally means that no one is “at fault” for the marriage breaking up. No one is placing blame for the dissolution of the marriage onto the other party. But when can you expect to see “irretrievably broken,” (or the legal term, “irreconcilable differences”), as the reason for a divorce filing? What can that really mean, in practice? This article is going to discuss a few different situations and why this is frequently the path chosen for a divorcing couple.

Common Reasons for Stating a Marriage is Irretrievably Broken

  1. Marital Misconduct

It is important for divorcing individuals to understand that just because a spouse states that a marriage is irretrievably broken, it does not necessarily mean there was no wrongdoing. Stating that the marriage is irretrievably broken can be a strategic move, or it can also be a way to limit finger pointing and blame in the course of a divorce. It can be a way to avoid shining a spotlight on more inflammatory reasons for divorce such as various types of marital misconduct — even adultery — as these can often lead to more public or acrimonious proceedings.

Again, stating that the marriage is irretrievably broken does not mean there was no misconduct or bad behavior. But it does release the couple from going through the process of proving, or having on the record, claims they make about the breakup of the marriage. Simply stating that a marriage is irretrievably broken may work to end the marriage but also help couples maintain a level of privacy.  Parties who choose to put all of their dirty laundry in their divorce filings may find they lost that benefit.[1]

2. Communication Breakdown

Sometimes couples may naturally just stop communicating over time as they grow apart. As communication is a necessary component to a healthy relationship, this difficulty could lead to a marriage that is “irretrievably broken.”

3. Lack of Intimacy

Intimacy in a marriage can refer to both physical and emotional intimacy and closeness.  A couple’s inability to repair intimacy can lead to a decision that the marriage is irretrievably broken.

Do Both Spouses Have to Agree?

But what happens when one spouse believes that the marriage is irretrievably broken and the other vehemently disagrees? Well, it does take two people to make a marriage work and thrive. As such, if one spouse believes that the marriage is irretrievably broken, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if the other partner believes that the marriage could be salvaged, the fact that one spouse deems the marriage is over, effectively makes it so. In California, the irretrievable break (or the “date of separation”) is defined as the time when a complete and final break in the martial relationship has occurred. This is often evidenced by one spouse expressing to the other his or her intent to end the marriage (and conduct consistent with that stated intent). While it takes “two to tango” in order to keep a marriage alive, it takes only one to declare it irretrievably broken.

If one spouse tries to protest the divorce by simply not responding or participating in the proceedings, the court may enter a default judgment against them. This is inadvisable since  decisions such as how the marriage will be dissolved, specifics concerning asset division,  or custody arrangements might be made without that spouse’s participation – decisions which may be difficult or impossible to unwind.

Contact Cardwell Steigerwald Young LLP

 The San Francisco divorce lawyers at Cardwell, Steigerwald Young LLP are standing by to discuss the specifics of your case. Contact our office today to learn more.



See California Family Code Section 2311 (concerning “irreconcilable differences”)

See California Family Code § 70(a) (concerning “date of separation”)



[1] This is not a intended to be a commentary on cases where there has been domestic violence, or on cases involving actionable abuse and/or the need to seek a restraining order or other protection under California’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”). Contact Cardwell Steigerwald Young LLP for more information concerning cases involving the DVPA.

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