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The 3 Best Advice Column Questions

#2: "How do I tell my family I've been in a relationship with my twin brother...for decades?"

In terms of overturning tradition, Emily Yoffe (Slate's "Dear Prudence") upped the ante by giving what many readers saw as a tacit endorsement to a gay couple of twins in an incestuous relationship. One of the twins wrote to her describing his lifelong relationship with his brother, and how -- now deep into middle age -- they weren't certain how to field questions from well-meaning relatives wondering why they weren't each seeking a mate, but were content to be seemingly single "roommates." Yoffe's reply offered gentle advice on how to break the news to the men's family -- without seeming to judge their living situation.

Obviously this question elicited one of the most intense "What the frack?!" moments of my advice-column-reading life. But the meaningfulness of this question and response goes deeper than just its shock value.

Later, in response to another letter writer, Yoffe defended her answer by saying the original couple weren't asking her if their relationship was right or wrong, but simply how to tell their family about their decades-long relationship. She then strongly advised the new letter writer (who was on the cusp of an incestuous relationship herself) to back away from forming such a relationship before things went too far.

Emily Yoffe is no Dan Savage -- readers don't turn to her for edgy, convention-smashing sex advice, so this episode stood out -- so much so that she's still discussing it, nearly a year after the letter originally ran. But she and Alkon stand for the new wave in advice columns: instead of tutoring advice-seekers on how to best conform to conventional behavior (an all-over life application of the "manners and etiquette" approach), advice columnists are teaching advice-seekers how to be comfortable in their own skin, honest about their own desires, and confident in their unique choices, even if they're a little off the beaten path. They don't give advice on etiquette so much as a philosophy of happiness.

Recently I've noticed a trend among the more cutting-edge advice columnists (in the "Holy sh!t what is wrong with your life?!" category) to urge letter writers less toward a discrete course of action and more toward honest self-examination. In other words, there isn't a right and wrong answer to every question -- an odd admission in a genre that got its start by telling people the right and wrong things to do. Instead, these columnists are acting like a magnifying mirror with a high-powered light for the letter writers: here's an unvarnished look at the reality of your situation, now ask yourself what you really want.

This can be a good and a bad thing. It's a good thing, in that it encourages a fuller and more satisfying life through honesty. But it gets murky when such advice is unmoored from a moral standard. But where's the line? And what do our standards mean?

On a milder note (in terms of content -- certainly not in snark), one writer sent an age-old question to Amy Alkon: should I leave my boyfriend, who loves me but seems unwilling to get married? A traditional advice dispenser might have given her a simple "He's a loser, run for the hills!" But Alkin takes a more nuanced approach:

Everything you say about the guy screams that the only aisle he'll be walking down anytime soon is one with a big sale on Tostitos or beer. This doesn't make him a bad person -- just a bad person to be hitting up for a marriage proposal. ... Yes, getting married is supposed to be the ultimate way of showing love and devotion, and maybe that's why so many people do it four times. You need to ask yourself: Are you more in love with the guy or the idea of marrying the guy?

Alkon's advice overturns the old-fashioned view that marriage is the end game of every relationship and the goal of every woman in one: instead, she urges the writer to figure out what she wants in her relationship and her life -- but above all, to be honest with herself about her situation.

Instead of giving the advice seeker a set of instructions, columnists give her a set of choices. And the reader's lingering curiosity is no longer "Did she do it?" but "Which did she do?"

In my new advice column, I won't give answers, but choices.