Tracy McMillan is tackling more relationship issues in the new season of OWN’s Family or Fiance. In each episode, the relationship expert brings an engaged couple and their disapproving family members together under one roof to see if they can settle their differences—or if the couple should go their separate ways. It’s not an easy job, but Tracy has been able to win over families and TV fans alike for years.
With the series now entering its third season, Tracy sat down with me to discuss how much goes into the making of the show and some common relationship mistakes. Plus, did her previous experience as a writer for scripted TV dramas help at all when she began handling real-life drama? Learn more about Tracy and Family or Fiance as Season 3 gets underway.
Brittany Frederick: We know what brings viewers back to Family or Fiance, but why do you keep making the series? What motivates you?
Tracy McMillan: This is absolutely my mission and my purpose in life—helping people get free. It’s about helping people heal from their generational trauma. What are our relationship patterns that stand in the way of our happiness? And it feels like my calling has been to help people grow through those things and find choices in those things. This show Family or Fiancé is really a fastball down the middle for that.
BF: Three seasons in, have you noticed any common problems or particular trends amongst the couples you’ve worked with? What stands out to you?
TM: Relationships are extremely complicated, and they are as complicated as people are complicated. But on the other hand, it’s pretty simple. Relationships either are secure-functioning or insecure-functioning. My job is to sit down, figure out what you have going on and how we can get you to more secure functioning.
Your body is very responsive to a partner. Our partnerships create energy in our bodies. Our nervous systems are either on alert or they’re calm. When you’re secure in a relationship, you’re calm. You can explore the world. You get your work done. It doesn’t cause a bunch of stress. There’s not tons of conflict, and what conflict does happen gets repaired very easily. When people have insecure functioning in their relationships, it’s like their nervous systems are having an allergy. It’s like you’re on the edge. What we want is to have secure-functioning relationships, and I help people get to that.
BF: The gist of the series is that you teach things to these couples, but have you learned from them? Have you grown from your work on Family or Fiance?
TM: 100 percent. The couples I’ve worked with have taught me so much about being in a relationship that is working. Relationships are either working or you’re trying to make them work. And if you’re trying to make it work, it means it’s not really working. I used to be in relationships that weren’t working as well as they could. We have tended to do our relationships based on what our best friends think, what our moms say, what folk wisdom is out there.
But in fact, now we have a lot of data on what makes a relationship work. There’s a lot of people out there like John Gottman, Dr. Sue Johnson and Diane Poole Heller doing studies to find out what makes something work. Now that I know what these things are that need to be done, I do them.
BF: Are there any Family or Fiance Season 3 episodes that you’re particularly excited for viewers to see?
TM: I would definitely tune into the one where a couple has a very hard decision to make around different life paths. She wants a baby, he doesn’t and this is the kind of deal-breaker issue that many couples face before they get married. The way this couple faces the issue is really instructive for people who want to be in denial in their relationships and just be like, “Whatever, we’ll figure it out after we get married.”
The best time to figure things out is before you get married—but it requires a whole lot of honesty. People sometimes have a hard time holding themselves accountable. And that’s where the families come in, because families are really good at holding you accountable.
BF: Much earlier in your career, you were writing for scripted relationships on shows like NBC’s Chase. Did any of the fictional characters, relationships or stories you crafted help you when you started in the reality TV space?
TM: At its best any kind of writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, is really about character and what makes human beings tick. The more true you are to the human experience, the better the show is. I feel like that’s a little bit my superpower because I grew up in foster care and in order to survive, I had to be able to accurately predict how people were going to act. I got exposure to 20-plus homes, where people were doing things in different ways. I learned to read people’s facial expressions. I learned to mind map all sorts of different people.
That made it so that I’m a very accurate understander and interpreter of the human experience, and there’s probably no better skill for a writer…Life gives you experiences that lead you to skills. And if you can figure out what those things are you can have a great, fulfilling purpose in life, a place where you give back.
BF: Is there anything you really want viewers to take away from watching Family or Fiance, since they’re not working with you directly?
TM: You have to educate yourself about what makes a relationship work and then you have to make yourself accountable for it…There’s one guy called Stan Tatkin [who] has come up with five principles—collaboration, mutuality, sensitivity, justness and fairness. Collaboration means you’re working together. Mutuality means each person is in for the same amount. Sensitivity means if your partner has am issue, you’re sensitive to it. Being just [is] the difference between right and wrong. And lastly, there’s fairness. You can’t have a relationship that is vastly unfair in any way and think it’s going to work.
If you can practice those principles and base your relationship on those principles, you have a much happier, more secure relationship. A relationship is like the house you have to live in. You want it to be sturdy. You have to maintain it. A great relationship doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t come from loving each other. It’s more like going to the gym. It’s just about doing these baseline things.
Family or Fiance airs Saturdays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on OWN.
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.