Abstract The mechanics of cracking in fiber-reinforced ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) under general loadings remains incomplete. The present paper addresses one outstanding aspect of this problem: the development of matrix cracks in unidirectional plies under shear loading. To this end, we develop a model based on potential energy differences upstream and downstream of a fully bridged steady-state matrix crack. Through a combination of analytical solutions and finite element simulations of the constituent stresses before and after cracking, we identify the dominant stress components that drive crack growth. We show that, when the axial slip lengths are much larger than the fiber diameter and when interfacial slip precedes cracking, the shear stresses in the constituents are largely unaffected by the presence of the crack; the changes that do occur are confined to a ‘core’ region within a distance of about one fiber diameter from the crack plane. Instead, the driving force for crack growth derives mainly from the axial stresses—tensile in the fibers and compressive in the matrix—that arise upon cracking. These stresses are well-approximated by solutions based on shear-lag analysis. Combining these solutions with the governing equation for crack growth yields an analytical estimate of the critical shear stress for matrix cracking. An analogous approach is used in deriving the critical stresses needed for matrix cracking under arbitrary in-plane loadings. The applicability of these results to cross-ply CMC laminates is briefly discussed.