There are a few moments in TV history that are so legendary that even if you haven’t seen the episode in question, you know all the relevant deets. (Case in point: I’ve never watched Dallas, but even I know someone shot J.R.) And perhaps the most famous—and divisive—of them all? Friends, season three, episode 15: Were Ross and Rachel on a break?
It’s Been 23 Years but…Were Ross and Rachel on a Break? We Asked a Relationship Therapist
In an effort to get some definitive answers, I started out by revisiting the episode in question. Here’s a quick and totally unbiased recap of the episode that originally aired on February 13, 1997.
What Happens in the Episode?
It’s Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) anniversary, but Rachel is super busy at her new job and says that she won’t be able to celebrate. Ross decides to go to her office with a picnic basket and is met by a very stressed and embarrassed Rachel, who tells him to leave. Later that night, they argue and Ross asks Rachel if this is about Mark (her boss). Exasperated, Rachel tells Ross that “maybe we should just take a break.” Ross initially agrees and suggests they cool off with some frozen yogurt, to which Rachel responds, “No…a break from us.” Ross then storms out of the apartment without another word. Later on, Ross is at a bar and gives Rachel a call only to discover that Mark is at the apartment. He then gets very drunk, and when Chloe (“the hot girl from the Xerox place”) kisses him, he kisses her back. Cue seven years of “We were on a break!” drama.
I went on to watch that episode approximately 16 times and I was still unsure. So I decided to get a second (and third and fourth and fifth) opinion.
WHAT DO THE FANS SAY?
A “highly scientific” poll in our office revealed that 45 percent of people thought they were on a break, while 21 percent said they were not. The remaining 34 percent felt that they were kinda, sorta on a break (which seems like a bit of a cop-out, if you ask me). But what started as an informal poll among colleagues quickly turned heated. Suddenly, I had private messages coming at me from every department of our company.
“I think they were on a break, but I think Ross was in the wrong for going out and having a random hook-up that soon—poor form from someone who is supposed to be your lobster,” one colleague shared.
But for others, it was a matter of semantics. “I’m in the ‘no’ camp, because Rachel simply suggested the break. She even used the word maybe!” another editor argued.
“I hate to defend Ross, but I have to... They were 100 percent on a break,” our executive producer declared. “Rachel suggests it, and then when Mark comes over, she tells him, ‘I said we should take a break.’ She is totally aware of what she said! Should he have slept with the weird girl hours after the breakup? No. But I sort of get it. We just broke up and your boss is the person who’s consoling you? Where’s Monica? Where’s Phoebe? I get that Ross has a lot of trust and jealousy issues, but I also feel like that’s a bit odd.” She makes a good point; it does seem strange that the Friends crew are always at the apartment…except when you need them to be. Couldn’t Rachel have found someone else’s shoulder to lean on?
With so many strong opinions from coworkers, I was more confused than ever. Clearly, this was a hot topic. It was time to tap marriage counselor Dana McNeil to get her expert take.
WHAT DOES ‘TAKING A BREAK’ EVEN MEAN?
“Well, there are different kinds of breaks. Watching the show as a therapist, it’s clear that this wasn’t a very defined break,” McNeil tells us. And that was (clearly) a big mistake. “There was no indication of when they were going to come back and talk about this or if this means that they’re actually breaking up from the relationship,” she adds.
Another major misstep? The duo talks about this when neither one of them is in the right frame of mind—Rachel is stressed from work and Ross is feeling rejected.
BUT WERE THEY ON A BREAK?
Per our relationship expert, no.
“What they were experiencing in that argument is a term that we call ‘flooding and flooded,’ also known as a fight-or-flight or freeze response,” McNeil tells us. Apparently, one of the things that happens when you’re in this mode is that your prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain linked to decision making and impulse control) shuts down. “Rachel was clearly in a ‘flooding and flooded’ moment and needed to take a pause, but was not able to look forward and realize there would be consequences,” says McNeil. When she suggests they take a break, this, in turn, sends Ross into a ‘flooding and flooded’ state (which is why he didn’t ask for clarification). Translation? Neither of them could make a good decision—or any decision at all—about their relationship.
Another reason McNeil argues the duo wasn’t on a break? Ross’s actions at the bar. “I don’t think his heart told him that he was on a break,” she says. “When you watch his mannerisms and how he’s just kind of responding and reacting to stimulus coming at him (an attractive girl, music, alcohol, etc.), I don’t think his heart thought he was on a break.” It’s true, Ross does initially reject Chloe’s advances, which could be interpreted as him knowing that hooking up with another woman would be cheating.
“If it were my partner, I would feel totally cheated on!” McNeil reveals. And honestly? Same.
So there you have it. Despite Ross’s claims to the contrary over the next seven seasons (even up until the very last episode), they were not on a break. And that, my friend, is what they call closure.