A systematic approach to symmetry breaking in molecular calculations, based on MCSCF and multireference CI (MRCI) wave functions, is presented. A series of MCSCF expansions is generated by successively incorporating resonance effects and size effects into the wave functions. The character of the potential surface obtained at each level is analyzed. As an example, the potential energy curves of the ground state (σ) and the first excited state (π) of the formyloxyl radical (HCO2) are characterized. The σ and π equilibrium structures are shown to be symmetric, with an adiabatic σ-π excitation energy of 9.2 kcal/mol. Unlike earlier theoretical studies, our MCSCF model produces a qualitatively correct potential surface. Therefore, we are able to extract reliable vibrational frequencies from the MRCI potential surface. © 1985 American Institute of Physics.