Nearly 26 years later, FRIENDS is still one of the most popular sitcoms that has ever aired, and to many, Ross and Rachel’s relationship lies at its core. Audiences have spent the last twenty-something years going backwards and forwards over whether they were indeed on a break or broken up; “WE WERE ON A BREAK!” is possibly one of the most well-known lines in television history; and the term “Ross and Rachel” has become part of casual English, referring to that on-again-off-again couple we all know and have had enough of.
We all know about The Break, and we all know how it ended. We all have our own opinions who was in the wrong, and we all have our own opinions whose fault it was they had the huge blowout in the first place. Really, though – there’s only one answer. It’s entirely Ross’ fault. But that’s a whole other opinion-piece on why Ross is the worst.
What no one seems to have paid attention to during the various debates surrounding The Break is WHY Ross cheated on Rachel.
Couples have arguments all the time: little arguments and squabbles – over why the toilet seat was left up, whose turn it is to do the cooking, or why one misplaced the others’ belongings – and bigger arguments – about the other’s friends and family, jealousy, etc. Some of these arguments result in some kind of a Schrodinger’s relationship (where neither partner is entirely sure where they stand with the other). But not all broken (up) relationships drive the ‘dumpee’ to sleep with another person mere hours after the incident – and you’d especially think not, if the dumpee has been in love with their partner for nearly a decade, as Ross was with Rachel.
After Rachel said “No, Ross. A break from us,” both were extremely emotionally vulnerable. Both were clearly worried that it really was over, but not entirely sure that it was. It’s scary to think you could lose the one you can see yourself spending the rest of your life with, and it seems pretty apparent that both Ross and Rachel were eventually gearing up to that.
What Ross and Rachel both needed at that point was a friend and some emotional comfort.
Within the universe of FRIENDS, and as is true in real life, women tend to bond by talking about their emotions. Friendships are based on mutual sharing, and this can be seen in action for the women in FRIENDS throughout the show, particularly in The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy (s3ep1), where Rachel is surprised that men don’t do that same level of bonding, and tells Ross how they are missing out. Of course, this storyline becomes a gag about Chandler’s Mummy Issues, but the sentiment is there: men do miss out on a lot by not talking about their feelings with their friends. The girls are shown bonding throughout the show (s1ep4, s1ep14, s4ep20, s6ep6, etc.) and are shown to rely on each other when one of them is going through a rough time.
And then there’s Ross. Ross doesn’t really have an immediate friend he can turn to. While Joey and Chandler’s friendship is the best, it is constantly alluded to throughout the show that they are closer to each other than they are to Ross. This could be demonstrated in the fact that throughout the decade of the friends’ lives that the show covers, Ross never actually lives with his friends. There is, of course, the exception of those few months during season five (when Ross was recently divorced, evicted, and on sabbatical) and his time living with Rachel while she was pregnant and then a new mum, but those living situations were driven more by necessity than by Ross actively wanting to live with someone else – as shown in his comment in The One with the Monkey that “you reach a certain age, having a roommate is kind of pathet-[ic]” (s1ep10). Ross is, compared to all the others, additionally shown to actively not reach out to his friends when he’s struggling emotionally – as demonstrated in his excessive drinking as a reaction to finding out about Rachel and Joey in The One where Ross is Fine (s10ep2).
We’ve already established that Rachel has been socialised as a woman to reach out to friends during times of crisis, while Ross seems to go at it alone.
In a reversal of roles after The Break had been declared, it’s Rachel who seems to want to deal with her emotions alone, while it’s Ross who goes to seek out his friends at the club. However, Mark (a friend and ex-colleague of Rachel’s who Ross was insanely jealous of) happens to call while Rachel is home alone, and she ends up confiding in him about the argument. Ross, on the other hand, spends the night isolating himself from Joey and Chandler even though they are in the same building, and remain there after Ross and Chloe (the “Xerox girl” who Ross does the cheating with) had taken off.
Because Rachel has Mark, she is able to talk out the argument, and process her emotions. Ross makes no such effort even though his self-proclaimed best friends are in the room, and keeps his emotions all bottled up. So, when Chloe starts hitting on him, he sees her as an outlet for his emotions (which may sound like he is using her – which he is – but remember that Chloe was totally okay sleeping with him when she thought he was married, so we shouldn’t feel too sorry for her, if at all).
To clarify, sleeping with Chloe is Ross’ equivalent of talking it out. Why?
Boys are taught to suppress their emotions, whole the girls are socialised to embrace theirs (and then shamed for this by men but that’s another matter). It is shown many times throughout FRIENDS that Ross struggles with his own masculinity, and as demonstrated by his reaction to having Sandy (a man) as his daughter’s nanny (s9ep6) is extremely “uncomfortable” with men showing “too much” sensitivity, with the irony being that he sees himself as sensitive. He is so concerned by Sandy’s expression of emotions and career path that he even doubts the nanny’s sexuality, assuming he must be gay or “at least bi”. Because Sandy is able to cry openly and talk about his emotions, Ross dislikes him on a personal level and feels the need to fire a well-qualified and excellent employee.
There exists in sociology a phenomenon called the “epidemic of male loneliness”. Men are taught not to express themselves emotionally – as in hegemonic heterosexual gender roles, emotional expression is feminine, and therefore anti-man – and especially not to their friends. If, therefore, women are the ones who are emotional, then it tracks that women are the ones who men will talk to about their emotional problems. However, in a predominantly heterosexual society that prizes monogamy, men and women can’t be ‘just friends’, so the woman that the man talks to would therefore be his romantic partner. This means that often the only person some men can be emotional with is their romantic partner, and if and when that relationship ends, the results on his emotions can be catastrophic. While the epidemic of male loneliness is often associated with the circumstances surrounding “friendzoning” – where the girl relates to her male friend emotionally and expects reciprocation, but the boy mistakes this for romantic interest, and then becomes angry when she it’s explicit he’s “only” her friend – it should also be linked with the (warped) view that emotional intimacy between a woman in a relationship and another man is a betrayal of her partner. The other man therefore becomes a threat to the relationship, as he threatens the ability of the partner to be emotional intimate.
Rachel does not seem very close with either Ross or Joey from the first episode through to her definitive breakup with Ross. The first close male friend she makes in her new life in New York City is Mark, and because he is Rachel’s only close male friend during this early period of the show – who, note, exists outside of her social circle that includes her boyfriend – he automatically becomes a threat to the relationship. Ross can bank on the fact that neither Chandler nor Joey would make a move on Rachel, but he cannot “control” Mark’s actions through reliance on the platonic obligation and loyalty that the other two men have for him.
It is because of this that Ross becomes so insanely jealous of the concept of Mark. It makes matters worse that Rachel actively confides in Mark (s3ep12), as he sees this simple act of friendship as an insidious means of stealing her away. To him, her emotional connection to Mark is a very real threat to their relationship, and does all he can to sever it, including taking Mark’s place at a fashion seminar he and Rachel are due to go to (and let’s not even delve into the enormous disrespect that Ross shows for Rachel’s career [s3ep14]). While, of course, it’s clear later on that Mark did in fact have feelings for Rachel during her relationship with Ross (s3ep19), he respected that relationship, and didn’t make a move until well after it was over. Ultimately, because Ross has been taught to view emotional intimacy as something you do with your partner and them alone, he is utterly convinced of Rachel’s wandering eye and emotions, even when she does her best to convince him that is not the case. This is not the only time this scenario unfolds in FRIENDS; during his relationship with Emily, he is ridiculously threatened by her friendship with Susan. During their brief trip to London, he becomes utterly convinced that Susan will try to turn Emily into a lesbian (s4ep18), just as she turned Carol into a lesbian and ruined Ross’ marriage.
So when Ross overhears Mark in the background of his phone call with Rachel after The Break was declared – and it was certainly only a break at this point – Rachel being alone with Mark is enough to convince Ross beyond a shadow of a doubt that his fears of Rachel’s infidelity were true all along. To Ross, Rachel’s crime of being emotionally intimate with another man is damning, and he considers them broken up after this. It’s this that enables him to be physically intimate with another woman, despite his supposedly unwavering love for Rachel.
However, this is not the only time that Ross sees physical intimacy as a solution to his emotional problems. Way back in season one, he kisses Chandler’s mum when upset over Rachel and Paolo’s relationship (s1 ep11); in season five, he ‘dealt with’ the news of Emily’s new engagement by sleeping with Janice; and it could be argued he is in essence driven into a relationship with Julie by the emotional pain of knowing it’d never happen with Rachel (albeit theirs being an actual relationship that may well have survived). It’s also interesting that’s its emotional intimacy in particular that Ross is quick to condemn: Rachel is the wrongdoer in their relationship for her friendship with Mark, but when Chandler’s girlfriend Kathy sleeps with her co-star (s4ep13) he is on Chandler’s side – until Rachel inadvertently draws a parallel with Ross and Rachel’s own relationship (“Just because you guys had a fight does not justify her sleeping with someone”), at which point Ross suddenly plays Kathy’s advocate, suggesting that she thought they were on a break. While this is played off as a laugh, the sentiment is clear: for Ross, emotional intimacy is far more important and sacred than physical intimacy. While in some ways the general attitude could be commended by the sexually liberal, Ross’ actions and behaviour are that of a jealous obsessive, utterly convinced that every sign of friendship between his partner and someone who could be attracted to them is a threat.
That’s why Ross slept with Chloe and cheated on Rachel. It’s not because they had a fight, or because he thought they had broken up: he did it because in Ross’ eyes – due to a socialisation into toxic masculinity and his own refusal to grow as a person – Rachel cheated on him first.