Divorce is a judicially administered process that legally terminates a marriage and permits both to remarry. Before 1857 in Britain, freedom to remarry could be obtained only by an act of Parliament following a separation decree given by an ecclesiastical court on the basis of some wrong, such as adultery or abandonment, done by the defendant to the plaintiff.
In the past, almost every state divorce law required the plaintiff to prove one of a number of recognized grounds for divorce, included adultery and desertion, even when both spouses wanted the divorce. The divorce system also required that the plaintiff be without fault, and therefore a variety of fault-based defenses were recognized.
By the mid-20th century most state legislatures had recognized one or more no-fault grounds for divorce, usually consisting of a substantial period during which the spouses had lived separate and apart. However, even these few no-fault provisions were interpreted narrowly by the courts.
The realities of divorce litigation in the United States were actually quite different from the legal requirements. In response to social pressures, trial judges and lawyers often permitted spouses to terminate their marriages with out proving grounds if both parties wanted the divorce. Such divorces were obtained by having the plaintiff in effect lie about the grounds without objection from the defendant.
A divorce reform movement took place in the early 1970's in the United Kingdom and the Untied States. The movement was initiated by a group, assembled by the archbishop of Canterbury, who proposed a single, no-fault ground that required a judge to grant divorce if he or she finds the marriage is irretrievable broken. The notion of irretrievable breakdown was promulgated in the United States by the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act.