The phrase has its roots in the fifteenth episode of the third season of Friends, titled "The One Where Ross And Rachel Take A Break", when a rift between Ross Geller and Rachel Greene (a couple at the time) came to a head. At the time, Ross mistakenly suspected that Rachel was having an affair with a co-worker of hers, Mark Robinson, and had subsequently frequently complained about how much time she had been spending away from him and with Mark. Eventually Rachel (who in reality only ever considered her relationship with Mark to be platonic and was unaware that he did indeed have a crush on her until he admitted as much to her in a later episode) became so frustrated with the amount of arguments she and Ross had been having over something that seemed so trivial to her that a fateful row with him ended with the following dialog:
- Rachel: ...Maybe we should just take a break!
- Ross: Okay, fine. Fine. Let's take a break. Let's cool off. Let's get some frozen yogurt or something.
- Rachel: No! ...a break from us.
The running gag
Starting with episode 17 of season three ("The One Without The Ski Trip") Ross recurrently repeats the phrase "we were on a break" in the recurring rows with Rachel as well as on occasions when the audience least expects it. Rachel also repeats her alternative version ("We were NOT on a break!") albeit it is far less frequent. Ross emphasizes that he and Rachel had broken up and thus he was free to strike a partnership with any other woman while Rachel maintains that somehow they had not been on a break and so Ross actually cheated on her.
The truth however is that both Ross and Rachel made a number of mistakes that resulted in their break-up after his drunken affair with Chloe, but both are seemingly unwilling to, even to themselves, admit their respective errors out of stubbornness stemming from anger at each other. Rachel's conversation with Monica at the beginning of The One With The Morning After (prior to learning of the affair) proves (as she says so) that she had indeed broken up with him when she suggested they "take a break." As Ross pointed out while arguing with her later in the same episode, in doing so she effectively "bailed on (their relationship) just when things got a little rough." However, it seems as though her rage and anger at Ross for breaking her heart causes her to stubbornly blame the whole fiasco on him; she responds to his statement about her bailing on their relationship by saying "that is neither here nor there" and refuses to take any blame for anything at all that went wrong with their relationship, later revealing that she expects him to take full responsibility for all that went wrong. Ross in turn is so infuriated by precisely this that he, somewhat ironically, adopts a similar attitude himself by stubbornly refusing to admit to his own mistakes and the truth behind his affair with Chloe-which is that out of paranoia he had mistakenly believed at the time that she had been having an affair with Mark and his relationship with her was already over.
The phrase puts the friends in painful situations as they try not to take side with either of them, lest their friendship is jeopardized. They regard the whole affair utterly childish. In addition to making no comment on the issue, Phoebe occasionally asks Ross to confess his love for Rachel openly, when he least expects the matter to come up. Ross, however, while confessing his love for Rachel to Rachel's dad and Phoebe, doesn't tell Rachel until the very last episode, "The Last One, Part 2". Chandler, on the other hand, is so deeply affected by the whole state of affairs that he resumes smoking and, for the first time in his life, cries. (See "The One With Rachel's Sister".)
The friends occasionally joke about this phrase. For example, in "The One With The Stripper", Ross comes angry because Dr Greene embarrassed Mona, but Rachel quickly promises she'll fix it. Phoebe then exclaims, "That’s it?! You call that a fight? Come on! 'We were on a break!' 'No we weren't!' What happened to you two?!"
Unsuccessful with their friends, Ross and Rachel both attempt to indoctrinate their own points of view on Ben and Emma, Ross's children, resulting in hilarious scenes. Also in "The One With Ross' Wedding, Part 2", in a flight to London, Rachel succeeds in eliciting a response from a third-party (a passenger to London played by Hugh Laurie), although to her utter dismay, the verdict is "it seems to be perfectly clear that you were on a break!"
The phrase is last heard in The Last One when Ross and Rachel state that this is it for them and Ross says "unless we're on a break" but then adds "don't make jokes now" before resuming kissing Rachel.
|“|| *Ross: I thought we broke up!
|“|| *Carol: You slept with someone else?
|“|| *Ross: She wants me to take responsibility for everything that went wrong in our relationship! She goes on for five pages about how I was "unfaithful" to her! WE WERE ON A BREAK!
|“|| *Rachel: I'm so mad Ross... I don't think I've ever been this angry!
|“|| *Rachel: You and me alright? This is it.
- The first time it was said and misunderstood, Ross and Rachel both cried after the break-up.
- In an ironic twist, in "The One That Could Have Been" where Rachel is married to Barry, she tells Monica that she wishes that they "could just be on a break."
- The phrase to be on a break is also used by Paget Brewster in an interview titled "Friends of Friends Part II", featured on Friends: The Complete Series Collection.