Why Ross thought “taking a break” meant breaking up

Yesterday something reminded me of the Friends season in which Rachel wanted to “take a break” from her relationship from Ross, and Ross interpreted it as a break-up (or so he said after immediately having sex with another woman). The rest of the friends were about evenly split on whether Ross’ interpretation was valid or not. At the time, I thought Ross was wrong and an asshole, but didn’t bother to analyze it.

But thinking about it yesterday (after three years with this site), something immediately struck me: the reason why he thought “taking a break” meant “breaking up” is that in his mind, Rachel was either there for him 100% of the time or not at all, because that’s what being a girlfriend means. This attitude was in fact what led to her needing a break. When she had to break dates to work late, he took it personally. When there was an attractive guy working with her, he got jealous. Of course, Rachel was supposed to understand when he had to work late and be around attractive women – and she did. She lived on Planet Earth.

Ross lived on Planet Me. Like a lot of men growing up around women who do most of the giving and men who expect it, he’d absorbed the idea that in heterosexual dating, being a boyfriend meant spending your free time with your girlfriend, but being a girlfriend meant rearranging your whole life to spend your boyfriend’s free time with him.

Young women also absorb the norm of women giving and men expecting, and tend to think they’ve revolutionized the universe if they do slightly less giving than their moms did. It’s not just in dating, either: in the workplace, men often expect women in the same positions as themselves (with all the same skills and education) to arrange their schedules’ around that of their male co-workers, or be left out of meetings.

This is a great example of how gender discrepancies aren’t made equal by changes in law or hiring practices because those changes don’t permeate people’s attitudes. How long can you fight the whole office every day when 90 co-workers think you should make the coffee even though you outrank half of them? How do you continue dating men when every relationship with a man ends the minute he discovers you don’t plan on doing 75% of the giving and there are 300 nearby attractive women who will? You make adjustments and cut your losses – or opt completely out.

And meanwhile, I wonder how many people – women included – considered Rachel the spoiled princess and Ross the beleaguered Nice Guy?


  1. says

    Frankly, I thought they were both pretty annoying.
    I don’t think Ross was an asshole for immediately sleeping with someone else. I think he was just emotionally devastated and confused. People in such a state don’t always make the best decisions about relationship stuff. I will admit that it’s been quite a while since I saw the episodes in question. From what I can remember though, the “break” was basically a real break-up, but Rachel just didn’t want to phrase it like that. I could be remembering wrong.
    The thing that confused me most at the time was how on Earth a yutz like Ross Geller could ever catch the eye of the cute girl that he messed around with. Only in TV-land…

  2. Dom Camus says

    I don’t think your “make the coffee” example is quite right here?

    The key problem in the dating situation is, as you point out, the “300 nearby attractive women”. In economics terms they’re all underpricing what they’re offering but you can’t go round and individually talk to each one of them to point out their error. There are literally no good options available.

    In the coffee situation though, you have a different kind of option available: to attempt to bring about fairness by asking male co-workers to make you coffee. Sure, in some offices it would be difficult to ask your superiors but at the very least it gives you the option to attempt to improve fairness amongst your peers. And possibly any female co-workers you have might be willing to support you. (And, in practice, some male co-workers too I would hope.)

    This is not to say exactly the same kinds of problems don’t arise in work contexts, I’m just not convinced making the coffee is one of them.

  3. scarlett says

    I watched three episodes of Friends and was left scratching my head as to why it was considered such an iconic show, let alone why Ross and Rachel were considered an iconic couple. They were both vapid and spoilt in their own ways and I didn’t see the appeal of a couple which can’t make up their minds to get together, stay together or split up.

    I didn’t see the story arc you’re referring to but from what episodes I saw, they seem about right for the character’s mindsets. I’m in a relationship now where my boyfriend gets that several nights a week I’m going to the gym because that’s something I enjoy, and a hefty chunk of my weekend gets put aside for writing because that’s something else I enjoy. I feel we do have a fairly equal relationship in that regard and I’m often torn between feeling lucky that we have an equal relationship and resenting that I’m meant to feel lucky that we have an equal relationship. You should not be working your life around your partner.

    Dom, I don’t really understand you’re point about the coffee. I have never heard of a scenario where a female subordinate asks her male boss to make her coffee, so if it’s a simple case up ‘the chain of errand-running goes down, not up’, than why should a male subordinate expect a female boss to make him coffee?

    And in regards to the ‘was it cheating or not’, I do remember that particular episode, and, despite being something like a 15-year-old virgin at the time, I didn’t get why a one-off under such convoluted circumstances was such a big deal.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    John, Ross became an asshole as he sought to justify what he did. And I did not have the impression Rachel was incapable of saying “break up” if that’s what she meant, so I assumed it wasn’t.

    Dom, the coffee example is a little outdated (I hope – I don’t doubt there are still redneck regions where it goes on). But the comparison point is that when pretty much everybody around thinks you should do X because you’re the woman, you’re either in constant conflict with people (and at risk of being labeled a bitch) or you give in on a few points to save your sanity. Also, the script basically plays out the same:

    Her: “Will you make the coffee today, Mr. Executive?”
    Him: “I don’t make coffee. That’s not my job.”
    Her: “I made it yesterday, and it’s not my job, either.”
    Him: plans to sabotage her career and hire a male executive in her place. Oh, and a maid.

    compared with:

    Her: “Will you cancel your plans and stay home with me tonight, Boyfriend?”
    Him: “I don’t want to. My last three hundred girlfriends didn’t make me.”
    Her: “And yet I canceled plans and stayed home with you last night.”
    Him: plans to start seeing other women and dump her

  5. says

    I certainly have found that the pressure to give up important things because I’m in a heterosexual couple is very strong, and my partner doesn’t get the same pressure. The biggest example I can think of is the backlash I’ve experienced from people when I decided to go live in Australia for a year – without him.

    Apparently this decision (made by the two of us) means that I’m not supportive, I’ve emotionally abandoned him, I’m using him, and various other things of a similar nature, according to “friends” and family. That this decision was made because we both sat down, discussed our dreams, and this was the only year I could move to Australia and he just didn’t want to go is irrelevant – I *should* be putting my whole life on hold, or just give up my dreams, for him. Oh, and the fact that he doesn’t want me to do that is just proof that I’ve emotionally badgered him into agreeing to it.

    The emails I got were bad enough. Having a friend visit for the past week who would casually drop into conversation the bad stuff people said when I wasn’t around was even worse. The constant guilt-trips from everyone who could pull one off (and my partner’s social worker – he’s disabled – saying things like “What you need is a wife, she would solve all your problems!”) really took a lot of the joy away from things for me. That there’s that constant little voice that says “Anna, you’re bad for doing something no one else would” didn’t help.


  6. says

    1.) Re: OP question…I thought Ross’s interpretation (i.e. “take a break” meant “let’s stop seeing each other”) was pretty normal. Whether or not it was “right” of him to go immediately sleep with that other girl is a different question, but I don’t feel he was cheating on her. I do tend to see relationships as sort of a binary situation…you’re either together, or you’re not…unless it’s an agreement worked out by both. But then, I see that as the same for both partners. I’ll agree, far too many guys demand more than they themselves are willing to give (the woman is expected to “put more into” the relationship”), and that’s wrong and unfair. But that said, if either side feels like they aren’t getting what they want out of the relationship, they should break it off…and I thought that’s what Rachel did (apparently Ross did too). Doesn’t mean they need to break off being friends (and shouldn’t, ideally)…but I do feel it breaks off any monogamy expectations (on both sides).
    Basically, if she wanted to continue the faithfulness to each other while discontinuing the whole “boyfriend/girlfriend” thing, I think she could have spelled it out better…because I didn’t get that from what she said.

    1b.) After finding some quotes online and refreshing my memory…yeah, Ross was totally being an overcontrolling dick. Expecting her to care more about his whims than her job? WTF? Any guy that says that should be dumped on general principle.

    2.) Re: Anna’s story: I think the way your friends and family are treating you is shameful…the decisions you and your partner make are yours, and other people shouldn’t second-guess that. Is your partner defending you, helping you deal with this? My wife got this kind of treatment from my family when we decided to move back north to her hometown (as if she was “forcing” me to move away, etc. etc.), and I had to get very forceful in telling them that our decisions on where to live are none of their business, and that I don’t like people badgering my wife about it.
    Hope it works out well for you, and you have my sympathy/encouragement. You can’t pick your family…but you can stop letting them make you feel bad. It just takes time. :)

  7. says

    Thanks, Jay. My partner, bless his cotton socks, is being pretty amazing. The irritating thing to me is the emails & comments are all directed at me – from people who haven’t spoken or emailed him in over a year. Apparently, I must get attacked and told how awful I am for having my own dreams, but he’s just the innocent woobie who shouldn’t be troubled with such things. *eye roll*

    It’s probably not a good thing to say, but it kinda makes me feel better to know this stuff happens to other couples, too. It’s really easy to start agreeing that you’re a bad person when everyone else seems to think so.

  8. says

    Jay, she says they need to take a break… “no, I mean a break from us.” A “break” is a temporary respite in every context I’m aware of. I’m not sure what could be unclear about that. HOWEVER, if someone said something unusual like that to me, I’d want to know where I stand, so I’d ask questions. Ross could’ve done the same. Instead, he re-interpreted the word “break” to mean something it has never in the history of English meant. I’m not sure the burden can be placed entirely on Rachel for getting her point across – how was she to know he came up with another way to interpret “take a break”?

    Anna, your story is so very, very common, and it just kills me to see women endure that shit. Even when the guy stands up for the female partner like Jay describes, most people continue to read an illusory female privilege into every situation where the woman isn’t sacrificing something. The best example I’ve heard was a classic post on LJ in which a woman mentioned that when she kept her last name instead of taking her husband’s, people interpreted that to mean she wore the pants – she was the harpy in charge, and he was the poor whipped guy. As she saw it, both parties keeping their names was equality. As they saw it, “equal” meant the woman changing her name.

    When you look at it that way, it’s so obvious how illogical it is. But people just continue on script for the most part.

  9. MaggieCat says

    she says they need to take a break… “no, I mean a break from us.” A “break” is a temporary respite in every context I’m aware of. I’m not sure what could be unclear about that. HOWEVER, if someone said something unusual like that to me, I’d want to know where I stand, so I’d ask questions. Ross could’ve done the same. Instead, he re-interpreted the word “break” to mean something it has never in the history of English meant. I’m not sure the burden can be placed entirely on Rachel for getting her point across – how was she to know he came up with another way to interpret “take a break”?

    Putting aside the fact that I now can’t bring myself to take Rachel’s side in anything considering how unpleasant her character became not too long after this plotline started, at the time it initially aired I never thought Ross was completely out of line here. That’s why I thought it was a fairly good one- it was possible to see both sides of it. I can totally understand why Rachel was so upset about Ross sleeping with someone else so quickly (I would be beyond pissed personally), but I can see where Ross thought they were broken up. In my mind a “break” from anything means stopping and doing something else, not just continuing on with the same thing and calling it something else, and I can see that translating in his mind to exactly what it did.. like, the relationship has been dissolved without prejudice with the option of revisiting the topic at a later date.

    He was, however, being a complete ass before that with his superjealousy and possessiveness and the show called him out on that many times before and after that. It had happened twice with Emily before, later there was an entire episode with him being jealous about a new girlfriend’s male friends, and all of the others sat around telling him that he always does the same thing: Monica bringing up old girlfriends, mentioning Emily, Rachel pointing out this debacle, and everyone saying that it had only escalated after his first wife left him for a woman but he’d been doing it his whole life. And again when he didn’t want to tell Rachel they were still legally married because he didn’t want to become “three divorces guy” and Chandler drafting in three random women as a kind of judges panel… and the only one of them who didn’t find his past behavior reprehensible was the one who openly admitted at the start that she’s usually only attracted to complete emotional-trainwreck freaks. If anything I thought the show was on Rachel’s side– whatever other flaws there were with the execution of the storyline Chandler supported Monica; even Joey was shown to be more mature than that; the one man who regularly engaged in this kind of entitlement is the one the writers usually made the butt of the joke and was regularly condemned for this behavior.

  10. Dom Camus says

    Further to the coffee thing…

    Actually whether it still happens or not (and sadly I’m sure it does in some workplaces) doesn’t really relate to the point I was making. I’ll try to explain myself better! (And likewise scarlett’s comment – I have actually worked in an office where a female worker was made coffee by her boss quite regularly – but that isn’t relevant to my point either.)

    The key idea is the difference between cases where there is a bad interaction between people who actually interact and cases where the root of the problem is non-local to you in such a way that you can’t interact with it even if you choose to.

    So, for example, suppose I was a highly qualified professional woman in a modern office and a male co-worker was in the habit of asking me to make him coffee. Even if I was in a really backward and hostile workplace I would have the option of asking him to make me coffee. Even if the situation was so awful that I would get instantly disciplined for this, I would still retain the option. This matters a lot, because it means that brave individuals can choose to take a stand if they find it called for.

    In the dating situation the problem described by BetaCandy in the post is not confined to direct interaction. If I am a woman dating a man and he expects me to be more flexible with my time than he is himself, I have no option to address the problem. Sure, I can point out his hypocrisy to him. But if he wants to he can dump me for another partner who will put up with this asymmetry. Why can he do this? Because my reaction to his unreasonable expectations is not a universal reaction. Other women may well simply accept his behaviour. No matter how determined I am to make my world a better place I cannot visit every other potential partner of his in the city and explain to them that they’re accepting things they shouldn’t!

    Now OK, that’s a bit of a longwinded explanation to handle one simple example. But the reason I think it matters is because it’s a template for a near infinite number of other situations. Increasingly in the more progressive parts of the world problems-which-are-like-coffee are diminishing. They are diminishing (partly) because it is possible to directly and locally act against to fix them. But problems-which-are-like-dating are much harder to address. And indeed, they seem to be improving at a far slower rate.

  11. says

    Dom, hmm. I’m still having trouble seeing the distinction because I’m getting hung up on the “options” issue. As I see it, you have MORE options in the dating scenario because while you can ultimately dump the boyfriend (or even opt out of dating if you never meet one who “gets it”), most of us can’t live without our salaries coming in. And you can’t visit every applicant for the job and tell her “Don’t let them put coffee making off on you!”

    BUT… if you’re saying that at least there is some mainstream cultural acknowledgment that it’s wrong for people to ask the female executive to make coffee because that’s woman’s work, and there’s no mainstream cultural acknowledgment that a man in a heterosexual relationship can do more giving than a woman from time to time without upsetting the balance of the cosmos, then yes, I see that. Or, put another way, someone who asks a female exec to make coffee is (now) being counter-culture, doing a daring and risky thing, while in the dating scenario it’s the woman who’s asking for things to be roughly 50/50 who’s being counter-culture.

    Is that what you mean?

  12. says

    Oh, the last-name issue. *sigh* I think there’s not much to stay to that, other than wow does it get people upset.

    I must admit, my brain is breaking on the coffee-at-work analogy, but I’m trying to substitute it for “who does the dishes at the end of the day”. Working at a hospital (as a typist, no life-saving here), I’ve seen the admin staff (all female) take turns at it, I’ve seen the nursing & tech staff (all female) take turns at it, I’ve even seen the female doctors and female Head of Department take turns at it. But I’ve never once seen a male doctor do the damned dishes, even if most of them in the sink are his.

    No one is ever asked to do the dishes, they just get done. By the women. And it drives me mad.

  13. scarlett says

    Anna, in regards to it happening to a lot of couples where the woman is expected to work around the man – my ex-fiancee did it a lot, it was one of the main reasons I left him. Once, he misunderstood when I finished work (I’d said ten, he thought it was nine, like him) then refused to talk to me for several days because not only was I ‘late’ but I had the nerve to want to have drinks with my new coworkers to get to know them rather than rushing straight off because he’d gotten a hankering to see me. Or there were all the times our social life evolved around seeing HIS friends because he didn’t see the need to get to know mine. Or calling me a selfish cow for wanting to keep my own name. Or not wanting kids anytime soon. Or…

    My current guy gets that travelling to Europe is something I really need. I’d love for him to go with me but I’m not going to not going because he can’t. Why should I give up an oppurtunity like that for a guy? He gets that, and doesn’t want to me someone who’s girlfriend stays home for, but so many people don’t get that and it frustrates me.

  14. says

    Good luck, Scarlett! Traveling can be really intense, and I’m so glad you’ve found someone supportive for it!

    Now that I’ve started, I may never stop griping about this. I think what irritates me the *most* about the whole “OMG! You have ABANDONED HIM! You EVUL WENCH!” thing that went down is this:

    My partner moved to a city where he already knew people, back to Canada where he had health care and social assistance guaranteed as a Canadian Citizen, was a 2 hour train ride away from family, had friends living in the city, had a social group that he had already connected with, was going back to school with a prof he admired, and was only a 6 hour plane flight from family should anything go wrong.

    I moved to Australia – I knew no one, I have no social assistance should I falter, my nearest family would take a minimum of 27 hours to get here if everything went bad, and would need to apply for a Visa in order to get here anyway, I had no job, no flat, and had never dealt with living in a country so freakin’ hot.

    And I’m the one who abandoned him?


    Maybe I need to make a venting blog post about this.

  15. says

    Re: Women Must Sacrifice For Their Men — This reminds me of the first vivid example of sexism I can remember personally experiencing.

    I can’t remember when this started — I think I was about eleven or so — but once my parents started making enough money to afford it, they started taking separate vacations once a year, in addition to the family vacation (and usually at least one long weekend together without us kids, as well).

    My dad would go hiking, usually with a friend, sometimes with one of his brothers. This always made sense to people — he likes hiking, my mum not so much, so of course he goes and does it without her, gets a break, that sort of thing.

    My mum went to Greece. She loves Greece, and she just hired a car and drove around various islands for a week, looking at museums, that sort of thing. Not really my dad’s thing, so she goes alone right? Always made sense to me, but there’s been a shitload of people who were scandalised by this. Note: these are people who were being scandalised at me, even back when I was twelve, about my mother going off on her own like that. They were, sometimes almost in so many words, telling a twelve-year old girl that her mother must be shtupping some young Greek stud on these vacations, because why else would a woman go off on her own like that, without even taking a friend?

    A man going off to do something without his wife, who doesn’t care for that thing, is perfectly normal. A woman going off to do something without her husband, who doesn’t care for that sort of thing, is horribly selfish, probably cheating, oh, and a horrible mother to boot. And it’s perfectly reasonable to inform said woman’s twelve-year old daughter of that, too — after all, if you don’t intervene, that daughter might grow up to be a selfish slut like her mother!

    (Yeah, I’m exaggerating a little there, but really? Not all that much.)

  16. Dom Camus says

    Is that what you mean?

    Umm… no. :-)

    Although actually in the process you’ve come up with a good illustration of where the confusion arises by talking about the employees who might take my job if I leave it. Yes, they too are a pool of people you cannot directly interact in exactly the same way.

    The issue in our hypothetical office is that we have “90 co-workers [who] think you should make them coffee”. So yes, I suppose this is the same problem as the dating situation if you think that their tendency to bombard us with random coffee-making requests is due primarily to competitors for the post all making coffee routinely…

    …which of course is not the case in general since a replacement employee might be male!

    Instead, I suggest their inclination to request coffee in this situation is primarily socially conditioned thoughtlessness.

    I suppose the flipside argument needs addressing too: Why not simply take the view that the boyfriend in the dating example is also responding in a conditioned manner? Well, he quite possibly is, but in most cases it won’t matter. He can have the issue explained to him, but doing so doesn’t remove the incentive for him to replace his rational but demanding girlfriend with some other girl who will offer him a better deal. And our assumption is that there are plenty of such girls around.

  17. scarlett says

    Anna, I suspect we’ve both been screwed around relationship-wise so I give Beta permission to give you my email adress if you just want to compare horror stories, or whatever :p

  18. SunlessNick says

    I watched three episodes of Friends and was left scratching my head as to why it was considered such an iconic show, let alone why Ross and Rachel were considered an iconic couple. They were both vapid and spoilt in their own ways and I didn’t see the appeal of a couple which can’t make up their minds to get together, stay together or split up. – Scarlett

    David Schwimmer (Ross) had a theory that the appeal was exactly that: that the six of them were a pretty pathetic bunch that people could laugh at and feel superior to. That I find this plausible is rather depressing.

    Oh, and the fact that he doesn’t want me to do that is just proof that I’ve emotionally badgered him into agreeing to it. – Anna

    They sound like a pretty pathetic bunch as well. And I wish there was something problem-solving I could say about it, but I can’t think of anything.

  19. Jennifer Kesler says

    Anna, I think a venting post would be in order. It’s amazing, that double standard.

    Melle, as soon as you said “separate vacations” I knew where it was going. You’re NOT exaggerating. While people in L.A. get the concept of separate vacations (we’ve had career couples since the beginning of film, after all), in most of the smaller cities I’ve lived in around the US, many people would be scandalized. Or at best, they just wouldn’t get why the woman would want to go off by herself. The man, sure, but what could a woman want to do on her own?

    Dom, um, okay. I think I get it now. Where the two examples match up to me is: in both cases, you’re fighting an assumption that’s held by the vast majority of people to be perfectly equal and fair to women.

  20. scarlett says

    Anna, where in Australia are you living? I ask because I’ve lived in Perth almost twenty years and I’ve travelled a fair bit around as well.

    And it has been a particularly hot summer :p


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