Dear Carolyn: I am a 34-year-old woman who has been married to her high school sweetheart for 11 years. We have had our ups and downs, but lately we have had only downs. I am very much ready to fight for my marriage, but it seems like all we do is that . . . fight. I love him, but I am realizing how selfish he is when it comes to our relationship. We have no children and are planning on adopting soon, and I wonder if that is the reason I am noticing this behavior. Recently, he has been very quick to snap and been very negative about everything I do. I've tried to talk to him about this and all he has to say is that I'm attacking him. Do you have any advice?
- Tired in Minnesota
A.: Please don't adopt. Not yet, not unless you find a way to like each other again.
I know that probably feels gratuitous. But just in case it doesn't: No child needs to grow up thinking irritability and denial are legitimate forms of communication, and by protecting even one kid from that, you have a chance to be a good mother before you even become one.
And while your becoming one may depend largely on your husband - and whether he can grow up and face you while there's still some marriage left to save - you can help.
First, you can hang back. Pushing will just make things worse.
Next, you can use this extra room to think. Snapping and negativity rarely constitute a problem unto themselves. They're symptoms - probably of his having something to say that he isn't saying. That's the classic.
But this is also the only guy you've ever really known, and you're closing in on the biggest life change there is. It could be he's the same, and you're just seeing him in a way that you've never been challenged to see him before.
Either way, he is clearly wrong to be deflecting all blame on you, but that can't be where you focus your attention. If you react to or punish the symptoms by accusing or snapping back, no matter how natural and justified it feels, then you unwittingly hand him something else he can deny or blame on you.
Stick instead to the underlying problem - or, in this case, on drawing it out, from you and from him. After you're regrouped, approach him: "I feel very lonely these days. If there's something you're not saying, please trust me enough to say it." It's not magic, and will only work if he wants it to.
But if you plainly lay down your arms and he still wants to fight, that's an answer unto itself - one you can try to answer with time, kindness and patience; with marriage and/or individual counseling; with a trial separation; or with all of the above, depending on how long and how bad this phase gets, and on how cooperative he's ultimately willing to be.
Sometimes, in difficult situations where you alone can't control the outcome, it helps to remember your best is all you can give.
E-mail "Tell Me About It": firstname.lastname@example.org; fax: 202-334-5669; or write: "Tell Me About It," c/o The Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Chat online with Carolyn each Friday at noon Eastern time, at www.washingtonpost.com.