How to Turn Pro at Relationships (By Keeping It Simple)

“The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits.”

–Stephen Pressfield


Photo Credit: Shenghung Lin via Compfight cc

Sometime last year, my seven year-old son decided to turn pro at apologizing.

We sent him to his room after some egregious act toward somebody in the house, and he emerged fifteen minutes later with an apology note, scribbled with a black Sharpie marker and first-grade jaggedness.

Several days later, we went through the same scenario. But not quite. This time, when he came out of his room, he was carrying an apology note written in multi-colored crayon. The letters were less jagged, written with more care.

The next time it happened, he used glitter glue and waited for it to dry. He tried to write it in cursive he’s never been taught, and the words were tender and sincere. The note was hard to read, but love always translates, doesn’t it?

I’ve been a marital therapist for over a decade. Sitting in the therapy room, with two people who have two sets of histories, wounds, and resentments can feel complicated and confusing. I have a big bag of therapeutic interventions, and some days, I almost empty it out.

But as I held my son’s sparkling work of love and remorse, it occurred to me: maybe it’s not as complicated as I’m trying to make it. Maybe it’s about turning pro at one thing, and dedicating our lives to it. Maybe I just need to remember the old Navy engineering adage, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Maybe we all just need to KISS.


How many marriage blogs can you read before they all start to bleed into one, and isn’t the one thing they bleed into always a jumbled mess of contradicting advice? How much unhelpful marital click-bait can you be tricked into before you start to get jaded about every article that shows up in your news feed? How many relationship books can you read before you start to wonder if relationship success can’t be found between the covers of a book?

Maybe, rather than making relationship drama more complex, we need to simplify our relationships dramatically. Maybe, instead of searching for the answers in words on a page, we could find our solution in the words being whispered in our hearts. And maybe the solution would be this simple:

Decide the one thing you want to turn pro at in your relationship.

And then get better at it every day.

By making it your art.

Making a Habit of What’s In Us

Several weeks after my son decided to turn pro at apologizing, we had a confrontation about something I can’t remember anymore. In the grand scheme of things, it was not very grand. I had walked out of the living room and was already focused on washing some dishes, when I heard the rustle of paper on the kitchen counter behind me. I turned around to find one of my son’s “I’m Sorry” pieces of art sitting on the counter.

This time, on the front of the card, was a carefully drawn picture of a father and a son.

They were holding hands.

My son is seven. Words still fail him, and even when he can find the right words, he often can’t write them. But a picture speaks a thousand words. And a picture of a father and son, hand-in-hand, spoke a thousand words about his desire for forgiveness and reconciliation and connection and belonging.

My son had taken the art of apology to the next level.

He had turned pro.

And it’s changing me. Now, when my son does something bone-headed because he’s anxious or sad or wounded, I don’t see the kid who is lashing out. Instead, I see, in my mind’s eye, the image of a kid on his bedroom floor, toiling over his apology. That is who he is at his center, and he’s decided to make a habit of it.

What if we all made a habit of the good thing at the center of us?

What if we all found the artist inside of us, and decided to draw one good and beautiful thing upon the canvas of our lives?

What if we all decided to turn pro at one thing in our relationships?

Take Pride in It

Professionals don’t master a huge range of skills. There are very few multi-sport athletes. The most outstanding professionals focus very narrowly on their very specific craft. A professional knows we can’t be all things to all people. We can only wield the skills we have the best we can. We can only be who we are to the people who will value what we are.

Turning pro at your relationships might just be that simple, too.

Pick the thing you want to master—whether it’s apology or forgiveness or attention or gentleness or sincerity or presence or support or grace or generosity or whatever—and then take pride in it. The good kind of pride.

The kind of pride that transforms the good thing inside of you into the art of relationship.

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Audio: Audio will be unavailable in April, while I’m finishing a book proposal.

Next Post: It’s About Time (to Truly Live)

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

18 thoughts on “How to Turn Pro at Relationships (By Keeping It Simple)

  1. I choose conscious devotion :). But I realized this can come only after we had taken care of our personal wounds and became complete by ourselves, when we are no longer two half people clinging together to make a whole.Then we can dedicate to share our completeness with someone else.It is the moment when true intimacy transcends each person’s individual awareness. It is a synthesis of two unique person’s ways of being. But for it not to be an acting of the needy, it has to be a conscious going into the realm of fusion of two complete beings. A lot of work to do before this stage! 🙂

      • I love it, too, Diana. It was such a good and intense Courtyard Conversation on Sunday, and I see you never stop thinking about these things. : ) I couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. I just wanted to write to say, it’s not a coincidence he’s using art to express himself. That is a life path making itself known. 🙂 . And it’s just wonderful. Art classes with great loving (maybe male) teachers should be next !

    • Great call, Melya; it really does feel like an expression of his true self, and we want to cultivate and encourage that!

  3. Thank you, Kelly. One thing. I am contemplating what this one thing might be. Thank you.

  4. Thank you Kelly. I’m struggling with some extended family issues and your post came at just the right time! I’m going to try and remember the imagery of your son drawing his well loved cards and try to come up with my own habit to practice. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Patricia, I’m always grateful to hear a post arrived at the right time for someone. It makes it all worth it, and I hope your one practice bears much fruit.

  5. Another great post, Kelly! Thank you! It does make me wonder what that one area I could go pro in. I will need to meditate on that to see what comes up! Thank you again!

  6. Love it! We have a professional apologizing, drawing note-writer too. Love her heart…what she is at the center. Thanks for the reminder my friend! – D.

    • I love to hear of other kids expressing their hearts in this way. Glad you’ve got one, too, buddy!

  7. I don’t know what my “thing” is immediately.. but I will listen for it to speak up. Thank you, as always.

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