Q.I have been married for 20-plus years and the first 10 were quite happy.

My husband and I both had managerial positions and were busy raising our first two children, all the time working as a team and supporting each other emotionally, spiritually and financially.

With the birth of our third child, we decided that I should stay home with the children and work part time at lower-paying jobs with less responsibility. With time, though, my husband began to criticize my absence from the professional workforce. He constantly pestered me to "sharpen my skills" and said I was beginning to sound like a clerical worker. When I told him that his sharp-edged remarks were hurtful and damaging, he said they were meant to be "constructive guidance."

For the past 10 years, his criticisms have been directed at everyone in the family and include everything from housekeeping and meals to the behavior of our teenagers. He is very controlling and finds fault with everyone.

Our marriage has deteriorated and, in an effort to regain my self-esteem, I enrolled in graduate school but with little emotional or financial support from him. I now find myself wishing for a life without him.

I suggested marital counseling, but he refused. I have even begun to suspect that he has a mental illness.

Is there any way to salvage this situation? I'm afraid that he will make it difficult and costly for me if we divorce or that he might abduct our youngest and return to the Middle East, where he has family.

What are my options?

A.Your husband may have become so critical because he's depressed, or he's afraid of losing his job, or maybe he's having an affair and feels guilty.

The more flaws a person sees in himself, the more he sees in others, especially those he loves most.

More likely, his anger springs from his stage of life.

The toughest time in a marriage usually begins when the first child reaches 8 and ends when the last one hits 18. These are the days when life seems so noisy and so expensive and duties are so relentless. The meals that were cooked today must be cooked again the next day and the next; the laundry has to be washed over and over again; and the children always seem to come first.

There is the fear factor, too. Even though you have a part-time job, your husband probably sees himself as the sole breadwinner, the guy who has to do everything, pay for everything and send the kids to college, too. If that's the case, he's asking himself how long he can carry this burden. What if he has a heart attack? What if the company goes under?

At the risk of sounding sexist, your husband has a right to be scared, simply because he's a man.

Most wives can roll with the vicissitudes of life pretty well, because they find it easier to talk about them, to seek advice, to see a counselor before they explode. And most men do not. They won't even go to the doctor unless they sprain their ankle.

Your husband probably won't become mellow again unless you and the children can give him more support than he deserves. Sympathy can soothe a spouse or a child better than anything else, and appreciation is nearly as powerful.

Ask for his advice, too -- when he's in a decent mood -- and tell him you'll think about his suggestions when he's not. Even though you have at least as much on your psychological plate as he does, you don't have to fight back or cry or feel hurt. That will only make the problem worse.

Do break dreary routines, however. If your children stay with friends for the weekend, you and your husband can go to a bed-and-breakfast, but make it a present to him for working so hard. Men arrange romantic dates before they marry, but women make them afterward.

When he calms down a little, your husband may agree to get a full physical, but call the doctor first and tell him how your husband's behavior has changed. That may lead to more thorough questions and more exacting tests.

Counseling is important, too, and if he won't go, then go alone. In time he may go with you, if only to give his side of the story.

But please, don't think about divorce until you have tried to repair your marriage for a couple of years. The children deserve the effort and so do the two of you.

And on those days when divorce seems inevitable, take out your wedding album and those baby pictures and remember a happier past. A marriage, once good, can usually be put back together, better and stronger than it was before, even if it's a little battered around the edges.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.