Because marriage is an ever-evolving experience, we constantly shift, change and, in some cases, start over. In It’s No Secret, couples share thoughts about commitment and tell us what they have learned, revealing their secret to making it work. (Answers are edited for context and space.)
Who Dana Stutman, 54, and Michael Stutman, 65.
Occupations Both are divorce lawyers. They are founding partners in the law firm Stutman Stutman & Lichtenstein in New York.
Their Marriage 16 years, 4 months and counting.
Through the Years
The couple married Sept. 21, 2003 before 165 guests at the Essex House in New York. Mr. Stutman had broken his leg skimboarding in the Hamptons about six weeks before the wedding. He walked down the aisle with a cane.
The couple lives on the Lower East Side with their two children, Julian, 15, and Olivia, 11. Mr. Stutman also has two children from a previous marriage, Amelia, 27, and Henry, 23.
Dana Sherins, then 32, met Michael Stutman, then 44, in 1998 while on opposing sides of a divorce case. “He had the husband and I had the wife,” she said. “I was an associate and he was a partner at a different firm. He treated me with respect. As a young female I didn’t always get that from men.”
There was no chemistry initially, but they enjoyed working together. Six months after they met, a mutual friend invited them to the Grand Central Oyster Bar for a drink.
“Michael was getting divorced and I was becoming more comfortable with him,” she said. “When he found out I was single I saw him melt. He was looking at me in a very different way.”
Over the next four years a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of friendship developed. “But one night he put me in a cab at the end of the evening, kissed me on my forehead and called me when I got home,” she said. “I told him, you’re a wonderful guy. There’s more that’s going on and we should run with it.”
During summer 2002, they officially started dating, though she had some concerns. “I wanted children, he already had two; I didn’t know if he wanted more,” she said. “I called him and told him he needed to let me know if he did.”
Mr. Stutman took a week to think it over. When he phoned back he told her he did want to marry her and wanted a family and more children with Ms. Sherins. In February 2003 the couple were engaged in Hawaii during a family vacation.
What They’ve Learned
Ms. Stutman I’m a math person; he’s a language person. We think differently. I compartmentalize and plan ahead. He’s very much in the moment. He’s authoritative with kids. I’m the soft push over. We balance, learn from each other and enjoy intellectual conversation. We are constantly trying to improve ourselves.
Michael is brilliant, humble and has brought humor to our relationship and to my life. I’ve shown him how to be less harsh, and he’s taught me to be courageous enough to be who I am all the time. Which he is.
I’ve learned I’m a good mother. I never had maternal instincts, which I found. He reminded me I’m a capable and intelligent person, that was something I forgot. I built up armor. He and my children helped me to be vulnerable and take it off.
Marriage is a constant job that takes effort and energy, understanding and kindness, and forgiveness. Everyone has a different perspective. Both are usually right. If you leave disagreements unresolved they fester.
Being divorce lawyers has made us treat each other nicely. It makes us better parents and spouses. We’ve seen acts of unkindness projected onto a spouse, coupled by a failure to forgive, so it snowballs until they don’t have a marriage anymore. We’ve learned that the way you say something is important. We have hot tempers. Because we want this marriage to work, we work very hard at taking a breath before we say something and being forgiving. We’ve learned communication is the most important thing. Michael gets up first and wakes me up with a cup of coffee, then we sit on the couch for 10, 15 minutes. We didn’t realize how important and intimate it was to sit next to each other and talk about our anticipated day. It’s a reminder that we love each other.
Mr. Stutman Dana is a fierce team player. She’s the protector of our relationship and of our children. I can be the conciliator. I put a premium on keeping the peace; she’s more direct. We’re both sentimental, passionate and principled. Dana can be more impulsive. She can put herself in my shoes intuitively and readily. I don’t do that so well.
She’s taught me to lighten up, to be more of a free spirit and to look at the upside of things. I’ve really evolved over the last 15 years, she’s been a huge maturing influence.
I’ve learned I’m more of a caretaker than I thought I’d be, and to be giving without being resentful. Not everything is a quid pro quo.
In this marriage there’s a willingness and an insistence that our life is a life together, and everybody is meaningful and needs to be taken care of. With Dana I have an unquestionable level of support. We are loyal to each other. We try to be true reflectors. We are loving and gentle, but honest.
I’ve learned we need nuggets of interaction. If not, you can become a stranger and lose yourself and the connectivity with your spouse. You can’t forget how much the other person has to offer, and how much they need you to offer to them.
From work I’ve learned not to withhold affection or use sex as a weapon. To be respectful of each other’s soft points. People want to put a pin in something and say, “This is why we broke up.” But really, it’s about how you got to the place.
I’d be a mess if I hadn’t met her. I’d have no insight to myself. I have a wonderful place in the world with her.