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The Friends TV characters’ attachment styles - decoded!

Updated: May 18, 2022

I thought I would follow on from my recent blog on attachment theory and Bridget Jones’ Diary characters with a dive into the world of the TV show, Friends.

I find it interesting to consider, as I do with my therapy clients, how our nervous system responds to other people; this is our social nervous system.

Because we are all intrinsically linked to our family backgrounds, a perfect showcase for considering familial relationships and 'attachment styles' is TV shows and soap operas.

By considering how we respond to others, and how our caregivers responded to us, we gain valuable insight into our patterns of relating romantically, in the workplace, and with friends and family.

Here with ‘Friends’ - staggeringly, written almost thirty years ago - we have six well-written characters, all with their own issues, personality traits and flaws – just like real life.

Essentially, I believe that these characters are all (or are they? Read on!) insecurely attached – and why wouldn’t they be, as this makes for great TV.

Let’s start with the Gellers. The story arc for Monica and Ross is well laid out, and we know a lot about their likely attachment styles, as their parents are also recurring characters. (A caveat - there's no 'wrong' or bad primary attachment style; it is just that some are considered more insecure than others, and may present specific styles of relating with other individuals).

Monica – primarily avoidant

Monica has a primarily avoidant attachment style, in my mind. Her actions are more self-absorbed, e.g. relating to her own internal compass, whereas her brother Ross’s seem more external, as I will explain.

We know that Monica and Ross’s parents treat Ross as the golden child, and Monica as the scapegoat, and that the siblings’ grandmother was very critical of Mrs Geller, e.g. Monica and Ross’s mother.

Mrs Geller, Monica’s Mum, is quite obviously written as being narcissistic – so, I’d suggest Monica’s Mum is primarily avoidant in attachment, with traits of narcissistic personality disorder. (This may make Mr Geller, Monica’s Dad, a likely candidate to be primarily ambivalently attached – he’s a bit of a ‘flying monkey’, e.g. colluding with Mrs Geller’s dominance and cruelness).

Monica, as the family scapegoat, develops a strong protective shell around her – she spent her childhood trying to impress her avoidant and narcissistic mother, and often still tries to gain approval from Mrs Geller.

I did question whether Monica may be disorganised in her attachment, this would be my second choice, as she can be quite needy (those with primarily disorganised attachment may feel both distant and needy at different times; or even at the same time); however, her many obsessive compulsive tendencies put her higher up the ‘social engagement system’ in my mind, and more in the avoidant category. (With her boyfriend Richard, who was seemingly written to be quite securely attached, her more insecure leanings seemed to subdue, somewhat.) She’s experienced disordered eating, so has seemingly always used control OF HERSELF to stabilise her emotions – as opposed to control of others, which may happen if she were more disorganised in attachment.

Ross – primarily ambivalent

Ross is a classic example of being primarily ambivalently attached, in my mind. Firstly, let’s acknowledge though that the character has perhaps been coded as autistic.

(Coded being when a fictional character has been knowingly written that way – even if the writers didn’t know that the character they’d created was autistic, for example if they based it on a family member or friend who was autistic, but undiagnosed.

(David Tennant’s Dr Who is also a good example of this, e.g. a character that fans see as being 'coded' as autistic.) Clues to Ross's potential neurodivergence include the fact that he has a lifelong, special interest in dinosaurs, is written with a ‘socially awkward’ personality, and finds ice cream too-cold, e.g. alluding to sensory issues. Obviously Friends is almost 30 years old, but it would be nice to think that if it were written today, Ross’s autisticness could have been sensitively and positively explored - there are of course many criticisms of this show, in that is very ‘of its time’.)

Ross was the golden child in his family of origin, and doesn’t seem to have a strong sense of self. His way of connecting with partners is with lavish, over-the-top gestures, he’s often terribly needy, jealous, and quite insecure. His narcissistic mother lavished praise on him, but mainly to fulfil her own value system, rather than enforce Ross’s. His ‘wounds’ are similar to Monica’s, but he expresses his needs differently.

Joey – primarily avoidant

Joey is the hardest of the group to categorise for me, as we don’t know much about his family of origin, in terms of their dynamics. (In the TV series Friends, at least). He’s one of eight siblings, with seven sisters, and we see his father at some point in the series, who’s had an affair. For me, Joey is the most securely attached of them all, but also the least-developed character, in some ways.

Yes he’s a womaniser, but he seems to have a good heart. If you were to ponder about his womanising tendencies, you could maybe link it to wanting to prove his worth externally, e.g. if he didn’t have much attention from his primary care-giver, as his Mum had so many children. So he has a sense of rejection, and needs to feel valued from the opposite sex. Because he doesn’t seem to naturally connect truly and healthily with his partners, e.g. putting their needs first, or even equal to his own, I’d put Joey as primarily avoidantly attached, instead of securely attached.

Rachel – primarily ambivalent

Rachel is written as a very manipulative character, like Mrs Geller, who seems narcissistic. I’d put her (Rachel) as primarily ambivalent in attachment, certainly with narcissistic traits, and possibly with histrionic personality disorder, as opposed to narcissistic personality disorder.

Rachel is very controlling of others, as well as being vain and self-absorbed. She’s very dramatic and histrionic in nature. As a personality disorder, I feel this suits her better than narcissistic, as histrionic individuals use more excessive attention-seeking behaviours, inappropriate seduction, and can seem more easily influenced by others, e.g. external factors.

A key moment showing the side of her that is somewhat narcissistic is when Rachel encouraged Bonnie to shave her head – or when she dated Monica’s crushes - pure manipulative behaviour. She never treated Ross that well, and often played mind-games with him. We glean from the first episode that Rachel’s Dad wanted her to marry for money, so maybe she always found a way to gain her sense of self-worth externally – notably with material things and praise for how she looks.

Chandler – primarily disorganised

Chandler is such a complex character. His well-documented, troubled relationship with his parents has definitely affected him. He’s quite insecure and has an external locus of evaluation – he seeks value outside of himself – and he’s easily hurt and triggered. Chandler has trouble committing to romantic relationships, and doesn’t seem able to stand up to being forgotten about, or dismissed by his friends.

I would suggest he’s primarily disorganised, as he displays such overtly avoidant AND ambivalent behaviours, rather than mainly one or the other. He runs away from commitment on one hand, and then can be very needy. Plus, his family dynamic as a child was seemingly really toxic and trauma-inducing, and he’s admitted to sometimes hating himself.

Phoebe – primarily disorganised

Like Chandler, Phoebe also had a trauma-inducing childhood, and to me, is obviously disorganised in attachment – the fact the writers allude to her showing schizotypal personality disorder traits confirms this, for me; e.g. she is ‘coded’ by the writers as having these traits, which include perceptual or mental disturbances.

As a presumed-schizotypal person, she doesn’t actually crave social contact, has an emotional distance between her and the other friends on the show, and had a traumatic childhood. (Her mother took her own life, for example). Phoebe believes her mother has been reincarnated as a cat, has mood swings, and she says fanciful things that her friends question are really true. The existence she’s created for herself seems a complete creation of a protective emotional shield, as her own reality is too painful.

(I do wonder about her relationship with Mike – we know he’s broken free from a restrictive upper-class upbringing, and is divorced, but he seems to be written (coded) as not having the emotional challenges and insecure attachment styles of the main cast members. I can’t help wondering – if he’s a healthy, primarily securely attached individual, would he and Phoebe really be able to connect so well, given her obvious ‘emotional distance’ with people? Because of that, and the fact he doesn’t seem too needy or dramatic as a character, I will hazard a guess that Mike is primarily avoidant, due to his commitment issues. This also makes sense, given the hints in the show that his parents are emotionally distant to him. He’s used to being around emotionally distant people, hence his social nervous system might be a good fit to Phoebe’s.)

And there we have it – the Friends TV characters’ attachment profiles decoded!

Top pic by Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar.

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