We’d all like to think that we make the best choices when it comes to our romantic and familial lives, but let’s face it: It would be a lot easier if we simply had someone telling us what to do. Life doesn’t come with a manual, so many of us are wading through it in a trial and error manner. How much easier would it be to have an experienced life coach — who has done their own introspective work — to tell you what the best course of action is? How many arguments and anxious moments and awkward interactions could’ve been avoided? This is where life coach Tracy McMillan comes in, and we wish that we could have access to her insight 24/7.
The host of “Family or Fiancé” — premiering on the Oprah Winfrey Network — McMillan is a wealth of knowledge. As a life coach and a fully composed, rounded, and thoughtful individual who has made it her life’s work to leave people better than she found them, McMillan takes couples through a three-day intensive where she gets to the root of their issues. Are they facing a huge age gap? Are familial differences getting in the way? McMillan gets to the root and then some — but will couples stick to her sound advice?
Before the new season drops on OWN, we sat down with McMillan for an exclusive interview where we chatted about the show, personal growth, and her own story. If only she could be the voice in our heads all the time.
Before we get into your life and experiences outside of the show, I’d love to know how “Family or Fiancé” presented itself to you and what those early production days were like as the show found its footing.
OWN came to me about four years ago and said, “We have this idea for a TV show and we need a host. Would you like to come in and talk about it?” There was a process of meetings. This show is everything that I’m interested in as a person who … I feel like the place where you have your biggest challenges is also where you have the most to give, and relationships were an area of great challenge for me. As I have worked through my own issues, it’s become an area where I have a lot to share with other people about how I went from where I used to be to where I am now. I sometimes say it’s like I’m a jailhouse lawyer. I’ve had to do so much work on my own case that now I can help you with yours.
That was four years ago. Since then, we’ve done 60 episodes of the show. Basically, I spend probably 10 hours in therapy with every single couple in a therapeutic process. It’s not actual therapy because I’m not an actual therapist. I’m a coach, but I have a lot of psychological background. I always say to people, the difference between me being a coach and a therapist is that a therapist is going to let you figure it out on your own, and I’m going to tell you what you’re doing. I’m going to say, “Here’s what you’re doing. Here’s what you’re doing wrong. Here’s what you need to do to fix it.”
We get to cut to the chase on a lot of stuff. That’s if people want the healing — because sometimes people think they want to have a new experience in their relationships, and when it comes right down to it, they’re not able to do that work. There can be various obstacles that prevent people from doing that work. Some people have huge growth on the show, and then some people don’t.
The people who really, really get it is a fairly small group, about 20%. The people who get a little bit, that’d be another 50%. Then there’s another 30% that are like, “All right, we are definitely not getting it.” It’s not over their heads — they just can’t let it in for many reasons. It’s interesting. You can only do as much as you can A, forgive yourself for …
And acknowledge what you need to work on as well.
Exactly. But you can only acknowledge what you can forgive yourself for.
Definitely. Self-forgiveness, I’m sure, is one of the biggest hurdles.
It doesn’t mean you let yourself off the hook. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you didn’t do anything. It means you hold yourself accountable in a way that says, “I’m unwilling to unconsciously keep repeating this behavior.” Some people insist on staying unconscious because it’s safer. Some people wake up because that’s safer. It depends on the person, and it’s very interesting to see the differences between people who get it and people who don’t.
I don’t judge; I’m just here. I’m here if you want it. It’s not me. I’m just sitting in this chair. It’s your story. It’s your life — you can do with it whatever you want. That is freedom.
In the show, you help couples navigate some of the toughest aspects of life — cultural differences, age gaps, unresolved family issues — which run the gamut of topics and problems.
Yes — life stages. It’s every kind of issue that we deal with on the show.
Of all the couples you worked with, is there a couple or a handful of people that stood out to you as the most resistant to the process — of that 30% that you talked about?
Yes. But I want to say a part of how I do what I do is I don’t think about it afterward. I’m not driving home thinking about what just happened. I have to let it go. It’s probably like working in an emergency room, or something like being a firefighter. You don’t keep thinking about it. You would probably go crazy.
Plus, you have your own life that you’re trying to live … Letting people go is one of the best things you can do in order to let them go on their journey. It’s only coming through me. I’m not doing it. Something’s coming through me, then they’re going to take it from there. I have yet to be walking down the street and run into somebody. That would be really interesting.
In this three-day intensive that you go through with the couples, what would you say was the biggest hurdle that you faced as a relationship coach?
I see something of myself in every single couple, for the most part. There’s things that I’ve had to confront in myself that they’re having to confront in themselves. I have a very good ability to confront people, but be firm but not unkind. One of the things I see often is that you’ll have a man or a woman — but it’s oftentimes a man — on the show who is accustomed to saying certain things and having a woman person go, “Oh,” and then backtrack. When I don’t backtrack, then they want to get in a power struggle with me.
I’m not in a power struggle. I know what my power is — my power is I’m here. This is my chair. I’m not trying to change you, but I’m also not going to undo my own thinking because you looked at me a certain way …
Some of them are downright intimidating, and they’re used to being able to intimidate somebody, and I’m notable in that way. I have a chair and a camera. It’s my show. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not intimidated.” I can actually withstand that attempt to push me off.
That’s a huge service to them because they’ve never been with somebody like that. When you love someone and you’re in a relationship with somebody and they’re urging you to conform to their worldview, the temptation to conform and to cave is incredibly strong to maintain a relationship. But I’m not maintaining any relationships past day three, so I can be in my center. That is many times … This happens with women [and other] people on the show too. They’ve never had someone not cave, and it’s a great experience for them.
Having a platform on the Oprah Winfrey Network is a huge accomplishment. Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to have been working with the network and how your platform has expanded as a result.
The network is really about what Oprah’s about. Every person involved in this show, whether it’s on the production company side or the network side, is here to help people heal. That heart space, that purpose, that mission is at the very center of our show.
It’s the same core group of people. The executive producer, the director, the producing staff, me, the production executives, and the network — we’ve all been here since day one. There is a magic to this show, meaning it unfolds according to itself; we are just channels that it’s coming through.
I hope I don’t sound too lofty. There’s a purpose here and a mission, and we’re here to do the purpose, and that’s part of what’s so great about the show. When you set an intention personally, or as a group, everything that follows wraps itself around that intention and that our intention is so clear. I know when I say goodbye to that family on the last day … usually, I will say in every case, somebody amongst those eight people has had a healing, and oftentimes everyone has. Everyone. No one walks out of there the same as they walk in. That’s what it’s about. It’s about healing and growing families.
I’d love to briefly talk to you about your life outside of the show. I know you came from a rougher childhood, foster care. In what ways would you say that your early experiences shaped you as a relationship coach?
Well, they made me a very intuitive person, and my superpower is that I know what everybody’s thinking and feeling. That could be a terrible thing — sometimes it’s annoying and I wish I didn’t see so much, but it’s made me a very sensitive and compassionate person. It also gave me a lot of struggles when I was younger. But because I feel like I did the work … I’m like, “All right, this is my work to do in this lifetime. Let’s do it.” Now, I can give back out of that same experience.
You do it in every way. You want to do it one on one. I always say I’m doing it in line at Target. Working with other people to help set them free and have healing around trauma is what I’ve been doing for 25 years. Somebody brought a camera, that’s all. That’s what I would be doing. If there was no camera, I would still be doing this. I would walk outside and have a conversation with somebody. that’s what it’s all about — releasing life energy.
Season 3 of “Family or Fiancé” debuts on Saturday, August 6, at 9:00 p.m. EST on OWN.
This interview was edited for clarity.