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There’s an old joke about a reporter trying to interview an official about an aviation disaster. The reporter asks, “What caused the plane to crash?” The official answers: “Gravity.”

It’s to the point where I want to be that harried official when it comes to coverage of divorce. And here’s my obvious truth: Citing “irreconcilable differences” as the cause of a divorce is a lot of wasted syllables. Why is that? Because the grounds for virtually every divorce in California is “irreconcilable differences.”

It doesn’t matter if the divorce involves a former governor, a rock ‘n roll star, or a machinist from Fullerton. The grounds in California are the same: “irreconcilable differences.”

Let me show you.

The designation box on California court form FL-100

This is the pertinent part of form FL-100, California’s official two-page divorce petition as downloaded from the website of the state’s judicial branch. This is the document that gets proceedings going to end a marriage.

There are two checkboxes, one for “irreconcilable differences” and one for “incurable insanity.” The law requires “incurable insanity” to be proved by medical evidence, which means a lengthy court proceeding. “Irreconcilable differences,” on the other hand, means that one of the parties to the marriage no longer wishes to be married.

That’s what no-fault divorce means. Before the legislature acted and Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Family Law Act of 1969, California adhered—as did every other state in the union—to a system where people had to prove why they wanted to divorce. That system, known as “fault” divorce, extended back to California’s founding more than a hundred years earlier, where, according to a fascinating article in the California State Library, the grounds for divorce were:

  • impotence
  • adultery
  • extreme cruelty
  • desertion or neglect
  • habitual intemperance
  • fraud
  • conviction for a felony

The argument against no-fault divorce was that it would destabilize society by further weakening marriage. The argument in favor was that it get government out of the business of deciding who should remain married.

Over the next forty years, every other state in the union joined in. New York State, which resisted the longest, adopted no-fault divorce in the Summer of 2010.

So why do I hear broadcasters solemnly intoning the phrase, “the petition cited ‘irreconcilable differences’ as the cause”? Duh! Of course it did, because that’s all you can cite! And there are a couple of radio newscasters in town who utter the line as if the cause was some revelation from on high. Nope. Nothing divine about it. It’s a simple checkbox on a state form.

Of course the big problem with broadcast journalists saying inane things on the air is that it erodes our credibility. Somewhere around a quarter-million California couples file each year to end their marriages. Every one of them comes to understand very quickly that ending a marriage doesn’t require a reason. That’s five million Californians a decade. When they hear you cite “irreconcilable differences” as if it gives some insight into why newsworthy couples are divorcing, they realize you don’t know what you’re talking about. And if you’re unable to understand the simple concept that those millions understand, they start to wonder what else they shouldn’t trust you about.

That, to my mind, is an irreconcilable difference that ought to worry every one of us.


This article was originally posted at HalEisner.com on July 9, 2011