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

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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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.