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It's about my mother, the letter writer says. She wants to leave South Carolina and live with me in Maine. But she hates the cold. She can't stand my music or my cats. How can I make her realize she'll be unhappy?

"When people write to me or come to see me in therapy," said Harriet Lerner, a Kansas psychologist and national advice columnist, "they're secretly hoping I'll fix the other person."This letter writer is no different. Rather than examining her own values and priorities about her responsibilities to an elderly parent, she has focused on how to change her mother's mind.

"She's clearly trying to be an expert on her mother," Lerner said. "She ought to be an expert on herself."

Lerner, senior staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, is big on self-examination, and it turns up often as a theme in her new book, "Life Preservers: Staying Afloat in Love and Life" (HarperCollins, $23.50). The book features letters such as the one from Maine, questions and answers from Lerner's column in New Woman magazine, additional questions not previously published and eight essays.

Lerner said she was filled with "ambivalence and a little bit of terror" six years ago when she began her monthly advice column. She knew her space would be limited, and she was wary of jumping on the advice-giving bandwagon.

"I think women have suffered a great deal from conforming to the expert opinion of the day," Lerner said.

But she felt good about offering women a different perspective on their dilemmas, and she hoped women would read the column with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. In the field of human emotions, she said, much is unknown, and any one "expert" will have only a partial and subjective perspective.

"It's important to take what fits, run with it and ignore the rest."

Lerner is nonjudgmental in her advice - maybe to a fault - but she doesn't intend to tell women exactly what course to take. To a letter writer in her book who asks about the wisdom of dating a man divorced three times, Lerner refrains from simply saying, "Get out now." Instead she encourages some dispassionate thinking and some hard questions, then suggests how to read potential warning signs.

Lerner points out to women some of the social traps they fall into. The failure to speak up is one. For instance, after the letter writer from Maine decides for herself what her responsibilities are, she needs to be direct with her mother or the exercise was of no use.

Women in unhappy relationships with men often have this problem, Lerner said. She recalled a story from columnist Ellen Goodman about a friend's best counsel to her four daughters: "Speak up! The only person you'll scare off is your ex-husband."

"It's great advice," Lerner said. "Women have gained nothing by silence."

"Life Preservers" is Lerner's fifth book. She wrote the best-selling trilogy "The Dance of Anger," "The Dance of Intimacy" and "The Dance of Deception." She also has co-authored a children's book with her sister, "What's So Terrible About Swallowing an Apple Seed?" due out in October.