Does it actually work better if we tip toe into a relationship, carefully testing volatile waters of emotion and desire, and the erratic firing of neurons and chemicals—versus plunging head first? I’ve tried it both ways many times—same result. What really makes a relationship ignite? What makes the pilot light go out for good? Could I have been any clearer about my values, longings, and fiery passions? Why isn’t there a field guide to marriage or x-ray glasses that can see through facades?

We are carbon based life forms; complete combustion burns all the fuel and leaves little secondary material. Love may be a figurative carbon based emotion. Therefore, I reasoned, it may be better to love and lose than to love and win. My relationships have often played out like the stories I wrote, and followed a pattern of situation, complication, emotional conflict, questions, escalation, climax, resolution, hashtag-the end. I’m at the resolution point of yet another failed romance. Marriage has become a noun—the realest person in this powder keg relationship, and there’s some loose ends to manage before I strike the match. I must find answers.

It’s good to know some women have great sex with men they dislike, and not all women use sex as an emotional bargaining chip or crutch. When I meditate on past lovers and failed marriages, and seriously consider burning down a spouse, I think of the movie Apocalypse Now. I hear Robert Duvall say “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” It reminds me how a relationship begins—aflame, sparks shooting everywhere—and how it ends, with an odor of disgust or apathy, distain or defeat—and a lingering whiff of emotional napalm.

In the 21st century, there are more versions of relationships and marriages than ever before, straight, gay, professional, open, civil, mixed race, write your own ceremony, make your own rules . . . none come with guarantees. Once marriage was a ‘till death’ proposition, but we live much longer now and are more independent. We are far removed from the stem family that worked six or seven days a week, and stayed in one place where everyone knew everyone else and non-conformity was intolerable.

We’ve heard the jokes, from “marriage is like a union contract in that after the fact you realize you could have done better,” to “marriage is like a secret recipe—only the two involved know what goes into it.” After multiple divorces, I know marriage is a legal contract between two people and includes at a minimum legal words to which the persons entering into the contract must comply. Smart people study a contract, read the fine print, and ask many questions. Does it matter I always wrote my own vows, which never included ‘obey’ or ‘till death do us part?’ Despite precautions, loss seems inevitable; it’s what happens when you mix combustibles: hearts, psyches, and physical assets.

Loss is elemental, and sometimes reacts like a fire that—deprived of air and fuel—burns down, leaving ugly charred fragments behind. Loss of love annihilates as much as a physical fire. The fire that ignites after losing a child must be kin to napalm, an ancient incendiary weapon that burns even in water, peeling flesh from bone. The loss of a lover is similar to a battery acid drip—or immersion in a vat of sulfuric acid. The sudden loss of close friends and family ignites like quicklime added to sulfur and pitch—disintegrating everything. Many pyro-technic devises are as indistinguishable as loss feels.

You think you married solidly—then find marriage is more liquid and unstable gases. Is it the fault of a malfunctioning body parts—a heart shaped like a chili pepper, a mind that extinguishes romantic notions, a gut that churns up caustic fluids of rejection and jealousy? Why isn’t there a Chemistry Book of dependable relationship formulas?

Marriage may be an organic composite often taken for granted. One of my marriages, in retrospect, behaved like a dark star consuming itself. We were oblivious, burning the midnight oil of work, scattering the ashes of dead parents and failed dreams, dealing with burning issues our offspring kindled. I admit, I occasionally relied on old flames to keep embers that seldom smoldered from flickering out completely. When does it cease to matter? Is it when we begin to dress in private, stop asking each other’s opinion, or realize a devoted hound is the only one to show affection?

All those lovers and marriages ago, I would imagine myself a phoenix reborn, being given another magical opportunity to find an elusive, all-consuming love. Was this an alchemical illusion? What purpose did love ever serve? Once people used religion to cope with death, and marriage to cope with aloneness. Is anyone really alone today? There are surveillance cameras, audio/visual apps on computers and phones, as well as speed dating, Internet sex, and anonymous bar hook ups. Many can afford to travel anywhere at a moment’s notice. Solitude is an acquired taste; sometimes, you feel most alone when the person you’re married to treats you like a stranger.

Worst of all is phantom sex. No, I don’t mean ‘a hand job.’ Phantom sex is when one or both people are doing it for physical release, or to maintain an illusion, or to attempt to recall something long gone, if it was ever there at all. Phantom sex can happen even in a good relationship—if you can multi-task and it’s dark–and you’re adept at mimicry. Phantom sex takes you furthest from the fires of love. It can chill you to your marrow when someone feigns love.

Someone always leaves first. Am I fortunate in always being the one to take the first barefoot steps across the hot coals of marital dissolution? It’s true what they sing about love: smoke does get in your eyes, love can be both a battlefield and a heat wave, rings burn fingers, and great balls of fire…some old flames never die. What did I keep hoping marriage would accomplish? What’s left unsaid and unsolved after a marriage ends reminds me of the shadowy photos of ladies of the night taken by Hungarian photographer Brassai in his book Secret Paris of the 30’s. What’s obscured in those photos leaves me with a profound curiosity.

I think I miss most those lovers that departed before we became a couple. For them, I considered entering a stiletto heel 12 step program, drank a carafe of bourbon with a straw, and created mix tapes that traced my pain. All these things allowed me to laugh eventually, and try again. Throughout my years of ‘relationshipping’ and missing, a pervasive sense of loss and a coldness where there should be balmy warmth persisted. Is it a cliché to say no man measured up to my dad, a most magnificent and mercurial man? Or that the medium of music most cunningly translates his precipitous death into feeling, and my grief into a pain that always singes me.

Loss is a little death, that is, it takes from us something we would never willingly give. Loss burns a hole in the soul. It forces us to notice what we normally disdain–how without a lover we wear mismatched underwear, forget to touch up our roots and other bodily real estate, and perhaps drink too much. When we love, we risk losing something profound.

What do we miss most afterwards—the routine familiarity, intimacy—not of sex, but of shared experiences, or the solidarity we somehow never really had with past lovers?

So much gets in the way of finding and keeping love. Perhaps we should forgive ourselves and them, issue a presidential sized pardon for our grave mistakes. We should pardon ourselves for our shortcomings and for caring enough to refuse to live in an in an unacceptable relationship—and while we’ve at it—pardon the turkeys in November. Perhaps love is a campfire round a house with no walls, just a roof of stars. It must be tended to often. Left unattended, it can peter out, or burn a forest to tinder stumps. How do you manage the inferno of love? What keeps you from burning down?