11 major relationship lessons to learn from 'Friends,' according to a couples counselor

NBC/NBCUniversalThere’s a lot that viewers can learn about relationships from ‘Friends.’
  • “Friends” is one of the most influential sitcoms of the ’90s.
  • From Ross and Rachel’s infamously fighting about being “on a break” to Chandler and Monica’s journey from friendship to marriage, the show depicted relationships in many ways.
  • Insider spoke with a relationship expert and couples therapist to find out what valuable lessons can be learned from the show.
  • As it turns out, “Friends” can teach viewers a lot about what to do and what not to do in terms of acceptance, monogamy, communication, and more.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Whether you’re a superfan of the series or you believe that “Friends” was problematic, it’s hard to deny the impact the sitcom had in the ’90s and continues to have via syndication and streaming.

Some fans use the show as inspiration for their clothing style, home-decor choices, haircut decisions, and yes, their relationships. After all, who can forget the series’ famous lines like “We were on a break” and “He’s her lobster”?

Insider spoke with Bukky Kolawole, a couple’s therapist and licensed clinical psychologist to find out what relationship lessons viewers can actually learn from “Friends.”

Here’s some helpful relationship advice to take away from the hit ’90s sitcom.


It’s better to be vulnerable than to react out of fear and insecurity, especially when it comes to relationships with those close to you.

NBCRoss didn’t deal with learning about his ex-wife’s sexuality very well.

“Friends” has been both hailed and critiqued for its portrayal of Ross’ relationship with his ex-wife Carol and her new wife Susan.

Although the show was one of the first network shows to depict a wedding between two people who identify as women, there are countless examples of Ross’ homophobic and sexist views throughout the series, particularly in how he navigates co-parenting with Carol and Susan.

On one episode, Ross chooses to walk Carol down the aisle when her parents refuse to attend her wedding to Susan but throughout the rest of the series he continues to make many jokes about Carol and Susan’s sexuality.

In another instance, he agrees to co-parent with Carol and Susan but doesn’t want his son playing with a Barbie doll because it’s too “girly.”

By constantly reacting out of his insecurities and fears regarding his masculinity, Ross was giving acting in homophobic and sexist ways while also damaging his relationship with his child’s mother.

“It is possible for Ross to have agreed to co-parent with Carol and Susan while still holding homophobic and [sexist] beliefs and therefore behaving in a homophobic and sexist manner,” Kolawole said.

She said Ross could’ve been a better co-parent and friend to Carol if he’d owned his homophobia and been open and vulnerable about how her coming out and pursuing a new relationship made him feel.

“It is more difficult to be judgmental when we are exposing ourselves,” she added.


Winning an argument shouldn’t be more important than the health of your relationship.

NBCRoss and Rachel oftentimes focused more on winning arguments than they did on their true feelings.

The crux of “Friends” is Ross and Rachel’s relationship and season three’s “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break” sets up one of the series’ most famous callback lines – “We were on a break.”

Like the on-screen couple, “Friends” fans often disagree about what “on a break” means and whether or not it was OK for Ross to sleep with someone else during that “break.”

But according to Kolawole, it actually doesn’t matter what “on a break” means or who was “right.”

Ross and Rachel were so focused on which one of their definitions of “on a break” was the right one that they missed the opportunity to heal their relationship.

“If they had been willing to give up whose definition was right and engaged in the more vulnerable and therefore more courageous way … they could have worked together to save and restore their relationship, potentially even [making] it stronger,” Kolawole told Insider.


During an argument, focus on the deeper emotional message that is being communicated rather than the actual content of the disagreement.

NBCPerhaps they should have focused more on their deep emotions instead of their surface-level issues.

In most of their arguments, Ross and Rachel focus on what’s being communicated on the surface instead of the emotional messages or deeper meanings behind it.

Kolawole said that many couples fall into the same trap.

She said we oftentimes do this because it requires less vulnerability to focus on surface-level arguments than it does to engage in difficult conversations about our emotional needs.

“Because Ross and Rachel were stuck focusing on the content of the communication and unfortunately did not know how to tune into the deeper, underlying, emotional message being communicated, they missed the opportunity to help each other in a catastrophic moment for the relationship where they were each struggling emotionally,” Kolawole told Insider.

She said that couples can avoid this trap by “tuning in emotionally” during an argument and finding out what the true problem is.

In the situation of Ross and Rachel’s infamous “on a break” argument, she was dealing with the hurt of his betrayal and he was dealing with feelings of shame for hurting the woman he loved.

Had the two focused on those feelings rather than the surface-level details of their fight, they may not have broken up in the first place.


In any relationship, it’s important to openly discuss your expectations regarding monogamy and fidelity.

NetflixRoss and Rachel weren’t clear about their expectations when they took a break from their relationship.

In addition to being vulnerable and willing to give up being right, Ross and Rachel may have avoided the pain of being “on a break” had they previously discussed their expectations regarding fidelity.

“It is critical that partners in intimate relationships not only talk explicitly, but also continuously about their desires, beliefs, and values around monogamy, interpretations of fidelity, and what constitutes betrayal,” said Kolawole.

In addition to outlining each partner’s expectations regarding fidelity, it’s also important to decide in advance what each person should do if they begin to feel differently about the agreement or if they have broken it.

Although these conversations can be difficult to have, Kolawole told Insider that it is important for couples to talk about these topics because “avoidance is what sets couples up for hurt and can result in painful consequences.”

Read More: Why a relationship ‘break’ could help you and your partner become closer than ever


Before entering into a relationship with someone much older or younger than you, evaluate whether you and your partner are equipped to handle the challenges a big age difference may bring.

NBCMonica and Richard were at different stages in their life and they couldn’t deal with that.

When Monica started dating Richard, a man 21 years older than her, she dealt with a lot of issues and complications related to the pair’s age gap.

These things may have been avoided if the two had first had an honest conversation about the possible issues related to dating someone much younger or older.

Ultimately, Kolawole said in situations like these it is most important to explore each person’s ability to navigate the complexities of a large age difference prior to beginning the relationship.

Talk about how the age difference will affect your relationship’s power dynamic, how it might impact some people in your lives, and how you will approach inevitable developmental tasks together.

In the case of Monica and Richard, they failed to discuss important topics, including whether or not they would consider having children together.

This ultimately caused the end of their relationship, as Monica wanted to be a mother and Richard felt he’d already closed the book on that chapter of his life.

Read More: 10 real couples with a significant age difference share how they make their relationship work


Dating someone you were friends with first is not always a bad idea.

Warner Bros.Monica and Chandler were friends for years before they began dating.

Arguably the series’ most successful pairing, Chandler and Monica started out as friends first.

They went into their initial romantic attraction and eventual marriage with a solid underlying relationship which gave them better insight into each other.

According to Kolawole, for these reasons, being friends with someone before you enter into a romantic relationship with them can certainly be a great thing.


As long as there is a physical attraction, you can probably cultivate a sexual bond with someone you’ve previously been just friends with — it may just take some time.

NBCRachel and Joey may have been able to get past their lack of sexual chemistry if both of them were patient.

Although Monica and Chandler had luck in their journey from friends to married couple, when Joey and Rachel tried to pursue a romance, they weren’t able to connect sexually due to their feelings of being too good of friends.

But maybe they shouldn’t have given up so quickly.

Kolawole said she doesn’t believe you can create sexual chemistry, but she does believe that a physical attraction to someone you’ve previously been platonic with could mean the possibility of something more.

Once a physical attraction is there, she said that it can be cultivated and the energy between people can be changed from friends to something more. It may just take some time.

Read More:16 pieces of trivia that only true ‘Friends’ fans will know


When handling issues with in-laws and family members not accepting your partner, it’s important to engage in open communication with your significant other and to make an effort to protect your relationship.

NBCMike’s parents weren’t a fan of Phoebe but it didn’t stop the couple from getting married.

There are various instances throughout “Friends” where in-laws or other members of the family get in the way of a relationship’s progress.

Monica’s parents don’t like Chandler because they think he got Ross high in college, Rachel’s dad and Ross dislike each other throughout much of the series, and Mike’s parents are appalled by Phoebe’s free spirit.

But when it comes to navigating family issues, the best thing to do is to maintain open, honest communication with your partner and those closest to you.

Kolawole said that although we may not always believe our family’s approval is a factor in our relationships, it often can be because people are “hardwired to care about people’s approval, particularly our parents.”

To avoid this negatively impacting you and your significant other’s bond, she said couples must set each other up for success by protecting their relationship and being responsive to their partner’s concerns.


It is oftentimes possible to overcome major differences in a relationship but it might take some work.

NBC/NBCUniversalMike and Phoebe would end up getting married.

Some couples on “Friends” broke up because of their inability to overcome major differences in their relationship, but this wasn’t always the case.

Phoebe and Mike are a great example of a pair who could find a happy medium despite having pretty different views about their future.

And, as Kolawole told Insider, it’s definitely possible for couples to stay together even if they have major underlying differences.

“When couples not only love each other but are both committed to showing themselves, seeing each other and being there for each other, they are able to offer acceptance to each other, change their perceptions of the issue, [and] increase emotional tolerance/flexibility for what is difficult,” she said. “Most importantly, they are able to get creative in identifying solutions.”

This is shown on “Friends” through Mike and Phoebe, who initially break up because she wanted to have a wedding someday but Mike was not interested in getting married ever again.

Ultimately, with open discussions and a bit of compromise, they were able to come to a happy agreement. She decides she’s OK with waiting for a wedding and he makes an effort to be more open about possibly getting married to Phoebe someday.


In relationships, ultimatums are not helpful — it’s oftentimes healthier to discuss boundaries instead.

NBCIt wasn’t healthy for Emily to give Ross an ultimatum.

An example of a “Friends” pairing that was not able to compromise is Ross and Emily.

After saying Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s at their wedding, Emily gives Ross an ultimatum. She tells Ross she’ll come to America and give their marriage a chance only if he agrees to never see Rachel again.

The relationship was essentially doomed from that point, as Kolawole pointed out that an ultimatum “threatens the relationship and ultimately the autonomy of the other [person].”

Once an ultimatum is given, she said people tend to get triggered and respond reactively or defensively. A better way to handle situations is for partners to know each other’s boundaries without threatening or challenging each other’s autonomy.

“Let your partner know clearly what you need more from an assertive and, more importantly, emotionally vulnerable place,” Kolawole said.


It is possible to be friends with an ex, you just have to be clear about expectations.

NBCAfter breaking up, Ross and Rachel may have been able to be just friends.

A recurring question throughout “Friends” is whether or not Ross and Rachel could ever be just friends after having such an intense romantic relationship.

But according to Kolawole, you can be friends with an ex, provided you’ve given yourself plenty of time to release the attachment you had to them and to allow your feelings to cool off.

She said that the new, platonic relationship needs to be restructured and expectations for the friendship need to be made clear in order for it to be successful.

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