On the Cover: Dr. Phil and Robin McGraw Share About the Heart of Their Relationship

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: October 29, 2009

“I was 19 when we met,” Robin McGraw says, sitting next to her husband, Phil C. McGraw, on the plush sofa in his office at Paramount Studios. “I fell madly in love, and he did, too. Right, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Dr. Phil, as he’s known to millions of viewers on his daytime talk show, is 6-foot-4 and dwarfs his petite wife on the other end of the couch.

Robin smiles at him and then turns back to me to answer my question about their long-lasting marriage. “He has said more than once that what works is ‘Yes, dear.’ That doesn’t always work.”

The McGraws have been married for 33 years. So what’s their secret?

“The secret is I married well,” Phil says.

Smart man.

Host of the Emmy-nominated The Dr. Phil Show, a talk show second in ratings only to The Oprah Winfrey Show, where he got his television start, Phil is also a speaker and author of 11 books, including the New York Times Best-Seller Family First: Your Step-by-Step Plan for Creating a Phenomenal Family and his latest, Real Life: Preparing for the 7 Most Challenging Days of Your Life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the author of five books, including the newly released Christmas in My Home and Heart.

Their son Jay, 30, is author of the best-selling Life Strategies for Teens and tapes his television show, The Doctors, one stage away from his dad at Paramount. Their other son, Jordan, is a musician who wrote the theme song for Dr. Phil, The Doctors and others.

Phil is humble about his successful marriage and family. But he’s not surprised at the success he’s achieved in his career, despite his impoverished upbringing.

“I’ve always been very entrepreneurial, and I’ve always been very successful in the things that I have done,” he says. “Not that I haven’t struggled, but I have always seemed to find some traction to get where I needed to be. And I knew that was in my future. I certainly had no designs on doing television or becoming a national personality in any way. That was never something that I aspired to. But I did expect to be successful; that was kind of a point on my compass, to move toward success in whatever I did. I’ve just always known I would do whatever it took to achieve whatever I’ve set out to do. I’ve never been afraid of hard work; it’s my comfort zone.”

Today, Phil and Robin channel that work ethic into their individual endeavors and the Dr. Phil Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to helping children and families at risk. The foundation is an extension of their belief that a healthy family is a vital ingredient for success.

“Before we got married, we talked about what kind of relationship, what kind of marriage, we wanted to have . . . and we got very specific about that, and I think to this day it is the reason our marriage is a success.”

Putting Family First

Robin met Phil when she was in high school. He was home on a break from college. Robin says she was at the McGraw house with her classmate, Phil’s sister. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh! I didn’t know you had a brother.’ ”

Nor did Robin know there was an air vent between Phil’s room and his sister’s; he heard everything the girls were saying about him. “So I kind of knew I had the inside track,” he says with a smirk.

The playful couple was married in August 1976. Phil completed his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1979 at the University of North Texas and went into private practice in Wichita Falls, Texas. The same year, their first son, Jay, was born. Their second child, Jordan, came along in 1986.

In his book Relationship Rescue: A Seven-Step Strategy for Reconnecting with Your Partner, Phil writes about goals management in marriage, suggesting that couples create a specific plan to deal with weaknesses and build on strengths in their relationship. He and Robin put this philosophy into practice long before Phil wrote his first book.

“Before we ever got married, we talked about what kind of relationship, what kind of marriage, we wanted to have, what kind of harmony we wanted in the home, how we wanted to feel when we were home with each other,” Robin says. “And we got very specific about that, and I think to this day it is the reason our marriage is a success. It’s because we got very real and very honest about what we needed from each other, what we needed in the marriage, and we have lived by that.”

The McGraws believed that one of the greatest gifts they could give their children was a good marriage. So when Robin was pregnant with Jay, they talked about their goals again.

“We made an important decision when we started having kids,” Phil says. “And we have really lived it. I mean our attitude was, these kids are joining our lives. We had a life many years before they got here. And we were smart enough to know that we would have a lot of years after they were gone. But some people really forget that. They stop their life; they stop their relationships.”

When the couple brought Jay home from the hospital, Phil’s mother told them to turn down the music that was constantly playing in the house. “And I said, ‘No, we’re not going to turn it down because we are bringing the baby in. The baby is joining our life, and it will learn to live with sleeping through music and all that.’ And they did. And it worked out—it worked out great.”

Throughout their lives together, Phil and Robin have kept their relationship as their No. 1 priority. “We were both in complete agreement that our marriage and our family are our own,” Robin says. “And we have never allowed—as sweet and kind as our parents were—we don’t let them inside our relationship. We’ve never opened it up to anyone else. It’s very private, and everything is just between us.”

Letting in the World

But thanks to Phil’s success, the couple did have to begin to let the world into their previously private lives.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I’m surprised that we are here in Hollywood,” Robin says. “I always say I’m not surprised. I didn’t expect to come here and change our life so drastically, but I’m not surprised that this man is here doing what he is doing, because I truly believe—I always tear up—I truly believe he’s supposed to be here. I think he’s a brilliant man, and he has so much to offer. And I think he is the man that is supposed to be helping millions of people. So I’m not surprised that we’re here at all.”

In 1989, Phil left his private psychology practice and co-founded Courtroom Sciences Inc., a trial preparation consulting business serving high-profile clients. For the next several years, he and Robin and the two boys enjoyed a prosperous life. Then they met Oprah.

Phil coached Oprah Winfrey through her trial with Texas cattlemen, who had sued her for a statement she made on the air. She was impressed by Phil’s get-real attitude and made him a weekly guest expert on her show. Public opinion took over from there.

“When I met Oprah, I was the owner and co-founder of the largest trial science firm in America,” Phil says. “We lived in a beautiful home on a golf course; we had a wonderful lifestyle. And our standard of living hasn’t changed much at all because it wasn’t like we were living out of a shoebox and all of a sudden we went to Hollywood.

“What has changed is the public nature of our existence. For 15 years, I was very much behind the scenes, the coordinator of events. I was the last guy to give an interview, the last guy to go public. And to make that shift to say we are going to start going very public on the biggest platform in the world, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and ultimately our own show, that’s a big shift. You start living life in the spotlight. And there are pros and cons to that.”

“If you can find something in your life that you just can’t wait to wake up and do on a regular basis, you are a success in this life.”

Enjoying the Perks

In 2002, Phil ’s show, syndicated by Oprah’s Harpo Productions and Paramount Domestic Television, premiered to the highest ratings since Oprah’s debut in 1986.

“Really, one of the fun things about getting to do what we do is you get to use that platform to really draw attention to things that need attention,” Phil says.

One of his goals early in life was to help lift the taboo on the subject of mental illness. “I had always really hoped to be able to open a dialogue about mental health in America, to make it okay to talk about these things. To not have it be something that you had to be ashamed of. And I feel like we’ve made a contribution to that.”

In addition, the financial success and the public profile of The Dr. Phil Show have opened the doors to charitable works on a grand scale.

“The Dr. Phil Foundation is something our family started—Robin, me, Jay and Jordan. It’s really devoted to disadvantaged children, trying to fi nd a way to help these kids that don’t have a voice.” They’ve formed an alliance with Court Appointed Special Advocates, which provides court-appointed advocates for abused and neglected children on their way to finding permanent homes. Phil and Robin both have been ambassadors for the organization on a mission to recruit more volunteers.

After doing a show on the challenges that U.S. veterans face reintegrating into civilian life, Phil also became a spokesperson for Iraq Star, an organization dedicated to providing aid to wounded soldiers. “We were so impressed with the class of this organization. They are the most giving and caring people you can imagine,” he says. Phil hosted their recent annual fundraiser in October that included Gary Sinise and Kelsey Grammer.

“Some of these organizations, like Iraq Star and CASA, have wonderful agendas but not a real platform to get their message out and let people know. So we have tried to do that and, fortunately, have been able to recruit more new volunteers in the last year than they have recruited in many years previously, combined.”

Episodes of Dr. Phil have also been focused on charitable endeavors, including the yearly Christmas episode—a fan favorite—where Phil and Robin organize a massive Toys for Tots campaign.

Getting Results

Of course, not everyone is a fan. The McGraws try to avoid comments by outspoken critics in tabloids and on the Internet. “To think that someone would sit in their home and log on to a computer and want to say something nasty about someone they don’t even know is shocking to me. I would never do that,” Robin says. “But we don’t read it, and we don’t pay any attention to it. Because we know what is true and real, so we don’t let it affect our lives.”

Phil’s controversial style has been his trademark. Phrases like “get real” and “in your face” have described his approach since his early appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“You can confront with demeanor or you can confront with content,” he says. “And I basically confront with content. I’m going to tell you the truth. And the truer it is, the harsher it may seem. It is what it is,” he says.

It’s an attitude he’s had since childhood. Born in 1950 in Oklahoma, Phil grew up in a turbulent home. His father’s alcoholism created constant anxiety, and young Phil worked from an early age to help his mother keep food on the table for him and his three sisters. At times, he lived in an apartment with no utilities.

“I grew up very poor. And when you grow up very poor, you become very results-oriented. Intention doesn’t count for much when you’re poor. It’s like, if you work today, you eat today. And if you don’t work today, you don’t eat today. And when you go to bed hungry more than once, you begin to correlate those things.”

Phil transfers this same results-oriented philosophy to interactions with guests on his show.

“I feel like when I get through talking, people shouldn’t have to guess where I stand. I feel like I owe it to tell people the truth as I see it. I think that’s why I am the way I am. I grew up where you choose a behavior, you choose the consequences. And some people don’t want to face that, and I was forced to face it.

“And when I sit down to talk to somebody, I’m going to tell them the truth as I see it, because the report card is coming, right? If some guy is being a jerk in his marriage, and I know with great clarity that if he doesn’t stop that, she will eventually have enough and leave him, don’t I owe it to him to tell him?”

Saying What They Mean

Today, Phil and Robin use their words carefully. With each other, though, the praise flows. Peppered into our conversation about career, kids, Robin’s latest book and the secrets to a happy family are compliments and smiles exchanged between the pair.

Robin says she watched her parents as an example of this building-up process. “I always admired their relationship because my father treated my mother with great respect for who she was as his wife and the mother of his children. I always saw that, and I always thought, That’s how I want to be treated.”

Competition, while a big part of Phil’s personality, has no place in the marriage. “We’ve always just had a very cooperative and mutually supportive relationship,” he says. “Sometimes relationships are actually competitive. It’s like, You got a night out, so I get a night out. You got to be with your friends to play golf, so I need to be with my friends to do this or that. It always struck me so odd. I grew up in athletics, and when there is a competition, that means there is a winner and a loser. If it’s a competition and I win, then my wife is a loser. Why would I want my wife to be a loser in anything? And how do losers feel when they lose? Why would you want that to happen?”

Phil believes that success has as much to do with his relationships as it does his career. “I think, to truly be successful, you have to understand there are different kinds of currency. There is monetary currency, but there is spiritual currency, family currency, there is physical currency… your health and your well-being, all of those things. You can accumulate a lot in one area but be bankrupt in the others and you’re not successful at all.

“And then, very importantly, is passion. If you can fi nd something in your life that you just can’t wait to wake up and do on a regular basis, you are a success in this life. I don’t care if it’s building matchstick models, running marathons, painting pictures, singing songs. I’m very fortunate that my vocation is also my avocation. I love what I do. I’m very passionate about it. And I consider myself successful because I have put my life together in a way that I get to do what I’m passionate about and I get to do it with my family. I’m surrounded by the most important people in my life, and it’s something I can’t wait to get up and do every day.”

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at AmyKAnderson.com and on Facebook.