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They Really Were on A Break: Couples Therapy with Ross and Rachel

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW

           It can be fun to discuss the ways in which mental health is portrayed in pop-culture, but it can also provide insight into the national psyche as well as lift up positive and healthy portrayals of mental health issues and knock down those that are not. One such interesting example worth exploring is the relationship between Ross and Rachel, two of the main cast of characters on the hit 90’s sitcom Friends. While hopefully entertaining and certainly tongue-in-cheek, I did use therapeutic models that can help identify problem areas.

           Abridged background information: Ross and Rachel are a cisgender, heterosexual, Caucasian, middle-upper class couple. Rachel ended a relationship the day of her wedding, Ross is divorced and has a child with his ex-partner. Their relationship was on and off for years, and a key area that we will discuss was an incident in which mistrust grew between the two of them around Rachel’s new career prospects resulting in distance from Ross and a co-worker that Ross felt had a romantic interest in Rachel. This caused Rachel to say she wanted to end the relationship (the infamous “break.”) Ross got intoxicated and had sex with an acquaintance after realizing Rachel had this co-worker that was the source of concern in her apartment late at night. Ross tried to hide this from Rachel as she attempted to repair the relationship and this ended their relationship for some time, later to be rekindled and SPOILER ALERT, they got married and the viewer is left to believe they were in a healthy relationship from then on.

A theory from Gottman’s Couples Therapy that can be useful as a guide is to look at the Sound Relationship House metaphor. The idea here is that relationships are like a house, some areas are the foundation, some are load bearing, and others still make it more appealing and comfortable. Below, I will identify a few key areas of the Sounds Relationship House that are important for all relationships and that are of issue for Ross and Rachel:

  •       Share Fondness and Admiration- This is the idea that we all have a bank of positive affection for our partners. The fuller they are the more positive we feel, the less full, the more difficult it is to feel positive and easier to feel annoyed with our partner. Ross and Rachel were at a low point in their respective banks. Ross had not felt seen or appreciated and was lashing out as a result. Rachel was building resentment because she wanted to build her career and felt frustrated by the ways Ross was managing his emotions.
  •       Manage Conflict- Constructive conflict is crucial to a healthy relationship. Every relationship has conflict, it is how we engage in this that helps us understand the health of our relationship. For example, why did the thing your partner say hurt so much? Was it what they said, or how they said it? How did they not understand why you were upset? If we take the time, this can tell us what’s going wrong and how to improve. This is a recurring area of difficulty for Ross and Rachel. When there was conflict there was very little acceptance of each other’s influence, i.e. Ross not being able to accept Rachel’s perspective about career, friendships, trust, etc. Rachel was not able to accept Ross’s influence about what he believes to be a concerning third party in their relationship or the balance of relationships and career. Another area of difficulty is listening and discussion. They rarely talked to each other at any depth about their concerns, instead they took turns shouting.
  •       Turning Toward Instead of Away- Ross and Rachel routinely made this mistake. The goal is to remember that we should be turning toward our partners with our concerns, hopes, etc. It can be detrimental to the relationship to include outside parties. That of course does not mean you cannot talk to your friends and family, but rather, there is a level of trust that can be damaged here. Further, it is crucial that you are pulling your partner in on these things instead of pushing them away. In a key moment of difficulty for Ross and Rachel, they both turned away from each other and toward another with disastrous consequence, consequences that carry a lot of weight even if they were on a break…

All of this helps give an outline of key areas of difficulty for Ross and Rachel. Delving further, there were times where Ross was problematic in his temper and how he managed his loss of feeling in control. Rachel was often either unable or unwilling to see Ross’s concerns as valid. Lastly, they were definitely, totally, completely on a break, one Rachel put in place. However, that is almost not important. The fact is nether one trusted the other in key moments and both of them refused to engage in meaningful discussion instead of conflict. These are all things that make good TV but unhealthy relationships.

Ross and Rachel were unhealthy early on int their relationship, however, there are antidotes to most relationship issues, and we can see they remedied many of these problems…or at least the writers did.

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