JUNE 9, 2017
WHEN I MET Andrea Miller at a children’s birthday party in Harlem a couple of years ago, our voices rose above the chaos just long enough to have a fragmented conversation about love. We touched on a question that people have been asking for thousands of years — how to love, especially while juggling work, children, and the demands of daily living.
I told Miller about my work on Simone de Beauvoir, who argued that love is never a given and harmony must be worked for continually. Miller said she was taking a similar stance in her first book, Radical Acceptance: The Secret to Happy, Lasting Love.
Miller has been in the love business for more than 15 years. She is the CEO and founder of YourTango, a website for positive thinking about love and relationships, which she launched after her MBA at Columbia Business School. Despite its anti-romantic thesis — that finding and keeping love is hard work and takes practice — Radical Acceptance is a positive and practical self-help book that draws upon Miller’s own experiences and mistakes, as well as those of her husband. It also engages with neuroscience and psychology, including references to thought leaders such as Esther Perel, Helen Fisher, Dan Savage, Brené Brown, and Amy Cuddy.
The secret to creating happy and lasting relationships, Miller concludes, is simple: just love your partner or leave. I admired her bold, Kierkegaardian-style leap of faith into marriage, but questioned whether that approach may compromise authenticity. On an afternoon before school pick-up, I met with Miller in her YourTango office on the Upper West Side and continued our earlier conversation about the challenges of modern relationships.
SKYE C. CLEARY: Why did you write this book?
ANDREA MILLER: I struggled with my marriage in profound ways. I didn’t feel loved enough, and nor did my husband, Sanjay. After a huge argument with him, I spoke with a friend who told me to “just love him.” It stopped me in my tracks. I realized she was right, but with the grind of daily life, “just love him” wasn’t enough. It was only the beginning. I started to think about how I could learn to love all of him — not just the lovable parts. In the process, I came to see where I was at fault and where I needed more tenderness and understanding from myself.
I wrote this book to share my experiences, mistakes, and research in developing “radical acceptance” by illustrating how transformative it’s been in my life and those of others. I make the case for why we need to do a much better job of prioritizing our relationships and learn to let go of our egos, petty thoughts, and disappointments that destroy love. I wanted it to be an emotionally honest and extremely relatable book, so I wrote it in a very conversational tone and filled it with compelling yet accessible science, stories, and lots of actionable advice.
Would it be fair to say that you’re applying the thinking behind arranged marriages — such as Sanjay’s parents’ relationship — to love marriages?
Yes. In the Western world, too many relationships have become disposable. As soon as a romantic relationship becomes difficult — and it always does — too many people want to leave or blame the other person, rather than work through the problems. The US divorce rate of nearly 45 percent bears this out. In arranged marriages, escape isn’t typically an option, and we know that many of them actually develop more love than non-arranged marriages, based on fascinating research conducted by Harvard Professor Dr. Robert Epstein. Most of them figure out how to make it work. They work hard at it. They learn to love each other. They learn to create love.
You point out that dating apps and websites aren’t helping people to create lasting relationships because, if one relationship isn’t going perfectly, they can go back and swipe for someone else in a huge pool of potentials.
Right. The disposable nature of relationships is a major curse. To be brutally honest, the issue is less about the other person than it is about ourselves. That issue we had with the person we disposed of is, in all likelihood, going to recur in the next relationship. So few of us are trained in the skills to build healthy, successful, and satisfying relationships. Meanwhile, loneliness is becoming a top public health threat. It’s twice as damaging as obesity and a serious problem for our mental, emotional, and physical health.
Should we be aiming to find a partner who is “good enough” and then working on the relationship from there?
Yes. I hear so many sad stories about people who held out for “the one” and ended up spending many years in and out of short-term unsatisfying relationships or alone. Chemistry, lust, and passion are great if you can get them, but they always fade. If you meet somebody with whom there is a mutual respect, a kinship, some degree of compatibility, and if you’re not repellent to one another, then I say, build your own great love story. That’s not “settling.”
At YourTango, we polled nearly 600 people and found that the number one way to keep relationships strong was doing new things together. I told Helen Fisher — the famous brain researcher and biological anthropologist — about this and her response was, “Of course!” She explained to me that when you do things together, your brain lights up with dopamine and norepinephrine — much like it does when you’re in the early throes of romantic love.
Love is an action word, so think about what you can do to show your love to one another. Reinvent date night. Take a morning or afternoon trip. Whether it’s picking up a surprise batch of fresh bagels in the morning, writing an unexpected love letter, or something more grandiose. Surprises go a long way toward keeping the excitement alive. Nevertheless, you don’t need a grand romantic gesture or even a surprise to help your partner feel loved. Many women tell me that one of the things they love most about their husband is that he brings her coffee in the morning. It’s the simplest thing in the world.
Is love necessary for a fulfilling life?
One hundred percent. Love is a biological and emotional imperative. In the book, I talk about the epic $20 million, 75-year longitudinal Harvard Grant Study that looked at the overarching predictors of a happy life. The conclusion was that happiness is love. We can’t thrive in the absence of love.
You include many references to neuroscience and psychology in your book. Why is it important to understand the science of love? How can it help us to love better?
When I dug into the research, I was blown away by the extent to which we’re physiologically wired to love. One of my favorite topics in the book is co-regulation, which explains how the physiological and emotional go hand in hand. For example, if someone speaks to you in an off-putting tone of voice, you react physiologically. Your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes shallow. I’m ashamed that there have been so many times when my husband was upset with me and rather than taking the high road, I fought back. That was never helpful for either of us.
Now, I realize there is so much more we can do to control our instinctive reactions. We can help co-regulate tense situations by using a soothing tone of voice, making sure our arms are uncrossed, touching or hugging the other gently, and maybe even trying to force a smile. I know many people who reject this as fake, but my view is that if understanding our own biology can help us to resolve issues, then we should use it. For example, a hug isn’t just a hug. It is truly healing. It’s not going to fix all problems, but it can be an important bridge to letting the other know that we’re on the same team.
Traditional coupling involves dating, marrying, procreating, and growing old together. Yet, there are many people — such as those in asexual or polyamorous relationships — arguing that we should break this script because it does not work for them. To what extent are you advocating for people to continue traditional, nuclear family-style relationships?
Traditional relationships work really well for a lot of people, but not everyone. One of my goals in writing this book was to diminish the taboo and judgments around nontraditional relationships. If that’s how you roll, just try to find somebody who rolls like that too. In the book, I talk about a couple: the man wanted a threesome; the woman was very reluctant. With the help of their counselor, Ian Kerner, the husband explained to his wife that he was looking for some eroticism and thought he might find it in a threesome. He was able to articulate his desires in a non-judgmental environment where the wife didn’t say, “Oh! You disgusting pig!” but instead, “Okay, I think I understand. I don’t know that I can do that, but maybe we can try fantasizing together?” So, when they were out together, as a game, they would look at other people, dance with others, and discuss who they would like to bring home with them. They never acted on the threesome, but the erotic possibility — denuded of shame — created a sense of vulnerability that ultimately led to deep emotional intimacy between them.
You advocate for zero judgement and zero negativity, but tolerance is not always a virtue. I wonder if being challenging and constructively critical, pushing our partners to be better people, are valuable parts of a loving relationship too.
The key thing is to ask yourself how you can be a great partner. A great partner doesn’t say, “Poor you, yes, you are deeply injured”; nor do they say, “Hey dummy, you’re wrong!” Great partners will be able to tell you hard or uncomfortable truths in a loving and kind way. Sanjay is the best devil’s advocate, and it makes me crazy sometimes, but it’s not incompatible with radical acceptance.
The subtitle of your book is “the secret to happy, lasting love.” Building trust and intimacy usually does take time, but is lasting love an ideal that everyone should strive for?
I realize there are a few misanthropes who aren’t interested in lasting love, but most people want that. It’s special, nurturing, and powerful to be able to build a life together with a partner. Radical acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean marriage. It doesn’t necessarily mean committing yourself forever. It means that you are going to love your partner here and now, and you intend to love your partner for the foreseeable future, knowing perfectly well that circumstances may change.
What’s your response to the view that chasing happiness is futile because it’s a receding goal?
It’s intuitive to me that everybody wants happiness. Research such as the Harvard Grant Study, which found that love is happiness, backs this up. Maybe there are rare exceptions of people who are happily alone — such as solo geniuses who are fulfilled by physics or music or athletics — but they’re extremely rare. The rest of us need love. Some people say what they want is contentment, but I would argue that contentment is a diluted version of happiness, and the people who say that may be fatalists.
On reading your book, I did start worrying …
… that it was anti-feminist?
Yes. Also, if I’m radically accepting my partner by doing things I don’t want to do for his sake, always putting him first, and putting 150 percent of my efforts into the relationship, and I have a limited amount of time, then am I giving up something of myself?
I used to think like that. As with work or mastery of piano, there just has to be “time in” — otherwise, you’re fundamentally saying that the relationship isn’t important to you. Time in doesn’t have to take long, though. It’s being tuned in and intentional in ways that are meaningful to him. For example, sometimes Sanjay walks with me so we can spend time together while I exercise. Me cooking is extraordinarily important to Sanjay. Even if I make him a green shake, he appreciates it. If you never want to make time for your partner, then you should be ready to part ways.
How important is sex?
Sex is crucially important. I know it’s a huge sweeping generalization, but your marriage will cease to exist as a thriving healthy one if you never have sex. For a lot of men, physical intimacy is a path to emotional intimacy, although I know plenty of women who are very sexually active and love it. That’s great and I wish I was that woman, but I am not. I’m a middle-aged mom with kids and often I’m tired, I don’t feel like it, and I have 500 other things to do, but I do it anyway because I know it’s vital for our relationship. I’m not saying that people should have sex on command, but if you always find excuses not to, your relationship will wither.
What if you practice radical acceptance and your partner doesn’t reciprocate? Are we not opening ourselves up to being taken advantage of and exploited?
There’s no guarantee of an outcome, but as Wayne Gretzky says, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” You may give everything in your heart to a relationship and your partner may not step up, but there is a very high chance that if you put in the work and are with a decent human being, it will create a virtuous cycle.
I’ve tried and tested and implemented everything I talk about in my book. I’ve practiced radical acceptance on Sanjay. I replaced judgment with compassion, empathized with him, and prioritized him. Sanjay responded in kind and I ended up getting more of what I wanted, which is somebody who is complimentary, attentive, and supportive. That came from focusing on changing myself. That’s why I say that love starts with you.
How much of a lead and the high ground does one need to take, and for how long, before walking away?
I can’t say for sure that there is a causation, but it strikes me — based on what I’ve read and my own experiences — that if you have one person in the relationship who is taking the initiative and being incredibly loving, that there is an ingrained propensity for the other person to respond in kind. Many people have taken my advice over the years, and the vast majority find that, as they practice radical acceptance, their partners do too. Sometimes it happens very quickly.
However, if it’s a relationship where years of resentment, frustration, anger, and loneliness have built up, it may take more than a few weeks or months. If you can’t live with somebody the way they are, or if they can’t love you the way you need to be loved, then the relationship is unviable. Don’t stay with that person. That’s a no-brainer.
And you say that those in abusive relationships ought not to practice radical acceptance.
Abuse — whether it’s physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, or any other kind — is never acceptable. There are going to be relationships that come at too great a cost. We are all a little bit crazy, but radical acceptance is meant for people who are reasonably healthy and normal.
You state that radical acceptance can apply to same-sex relationships, friends, and colleagues. To what extent does it apply to other relationships? How far can we extend radical acceptance? For example, should we extend it to those with radically different political views?
My advice applies to professional relationships and friendships as much as intimate ones. In fact, many parents tell me how radical acceptance has been helpful with children, particularly teenage children. While I wrote the book in a “hetero” girlfriend-to-girlfriend tone, my advice is for everyone — regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or cultural or ethnic background.
The question is: How important is that person in your life? Of course, you can still radically accept someone if they have dramatically different political views, but ultimately it comes down to the “love or dump” choice. You can either harbor frustrations about the things others do or say, or you can accept their weaknesses and focus on the good parts. However, this doesn’t justify bad behavior, and there may well be opportunities for feedback to help the other improve.
What about those situations which you can’t walk away from? For example, would you advocate for those who disagree with Donald Trump to radically accept him, since American citizens can’t easily move to another country?
I would never say radically accept Trump. For many people, including me, he’s extremely objectionable. In that case, radical acceptance isn’t at all warranted. It’s important for people to exercise their right to push back against problematic policies. However, if your parents are fans of Trump, I would say — unless they abused you or are reprehensible human beings — radically accept them anyway.
What does the future look like for radical acceptance?
My hope that is radical acceptance catches fire in a big way. While it may be well known and respected in certain niches, such as in some sects of Buddhism and among mental health practitioners, it isn’t a concept that is broadly ensconced in the zeitgeist. I hope that people who don’t even read the book hear about it, practice it, and create positive change in their relationships. By virtue of practicing radical acceptance, I’ve become a much better boss, mother, sister, daughter, friend, and citizen. My heart and mind are more open to others, I smile more often, I’m less judgmental, and my relationships have been transformed for the better. My hope is that if others practice radical acceptance too, it’ll not only make a positive impact in their own lives, but in all of society.