Love is a Fire, Baby; Six Metaphors for Relationships

flames in the shape of a heart
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Today’s piece is a guest blog post from Fluffy, an academic in-training, who is studying organizational behavior in hopes of making the world a better place.

Fluffy is a frequent contributor to Poly Land. Their regular blog is Eclectic Discourse (where pith goes to die; in-depth looks at awkward topics).

Here’s what they wrote for us today:

Love is a Fire, Baby; Six Metaphors for Relationships

“I’m so over the slow burn,” I said, “give me a conflagration.”

In academic writing, we write an “abstract” to a paper. Something that introduces the topic, states the conclusions, and gives an outline of the entire paper. A good abstract should be enough for someone who’s read the paper in full to come back to and remember the pertinent details. It’s silly, but I feel a need to include one here, especially since this is less essay, and more “listicle” for easy reading.

Below I outline six different fire-related metaphors to help people discuss, understand, and contextualize their relationships and what they’re looking for within them. They might also help readers “name what is” in their current life and remain mindful of how all sorts of relationships in their lives are structured. These six metaphors are “the slow burn,” “conflagration,” “campfire,” “bonfire,” “Bunsen burner,” and “chemical spill.” Each of these metaphors is presented with accompanying benefits, drawbacks, and an example. As they are metaphors, they’re imperfect, and there will always be combinations, exceptions, and differences within them.

Metaphors are some of the best tools we have for distilling complex and deeply involved concepts into tangible tools for conversation . These metaphors are offered less as a be-all, end-all and by fiat, and more as tools to help individuals and couples develop a shared language with which to discuss experiences that are relevant to them. Consider how these might work for you, but also what’s missing? What needs just a little bit of tweaking to be just right (and what is that tweaking)? Only you can decide what tools to keep in your box.

1. The Slow Burn

A slow-burning relationship is one that starts off, well, slow. It’s what we are typically fed as “appropriate” in understandings of romance. Boy meets boy. Boy dates boy. Boy never touches the other boy until love, security, commitment, and trust have been established.

…I may be unimpressed by this particular style of relationship.

The beauty of the slow burn is that it is incredibly safe while being intensely passionate. It builds and builds within the relationship, creating a delicate tension. “It’s like emotional edging,” a friend said to me, pointing out that it makes everything else in the experience so much sweeter and meaningful. Every glance, every blush, every stray touch is electrifying. The entire relationship takes on shared meaning that makes any milestone feel like a shared achievement. Memories are not only cherished but become trophies on the altar of the relationship.

And slow burns last a long time. They’re not just slow at the head, but they burn constant and prolonged. It’s clear why this is the ideal for so many folks: they’re stable, passionate, and committed.

But they’re easy to stifle, too. If one or more of the partners involved get impatient or interprets the slow pace as lack of interest, poof. The oxygen that feeds the fire has all but disappeared. They require careful and constant breath to remain alive, and if someone checks out or is looking for something more intense, they can sputter out and die.

Page is, perhaps, one of my best examples at hand of a “slow burner” with both positive and negative experiences from it. She moves slowly in relationships, not because she doesn’t like a person, but because she doesn’t need to move fast. This is perplexing to some (me included, sometimes), and has even led others to conclude that she’s asexual despite identifying as hypersexual. The reality is, Page tempers her behaviors because she enjoys the benefits of a slow burn, and it meets her needs more often than not. She neither smothers nor suffocates the fire but has had partners in the past that do either (and in one case, both). If you’re a regular reader of Poly.Land, you know some of her experiences.

2. The Conflagration

Let me be honest and up-front: a conflagration is MY style of relationship, 100%. I want to be consumed and have the entire landscape of our lives changed by our presences within them. The conflagration is intensely passionate, moves fast, and changes everything. Where the slow burn is careful, controlled, and breathed into, the conflagration is powerful, unleashed, and steals the breath from those in its wake.

There’s a joke in monogamous queer communities about folks who “U-Haul-it” meaning that they move in together very shortly after getting together and become inseparable. While this is a type of conflagration, for sure, it’s not the only type. These relationships in general boil down to life-changing upheaval of everything the participants ever knew. A conflagration is pure passion.

The wondrousness of a conflagration is the passion it activates. They are intense trust falls, akin to completely redecorating your internal space and hiring a designer you barely know, hoping they’ll understand how you use it. Conflagrations are those whirlwind romances you see in novels, romantic comedies, and sitcoms where the love interest is a special guest star for two episodes before dying off or burning out. They clear out the clutter to allow for the creation of something new.

They can last, but typically the repercussions from conflagrations last longer than the burn itself. It’s pure, unadulterated passion and intimacy. Sometimes they can evolve or change, building a campfire or even a slow burn in the embers of what was.

But they are destructive. The word depicts a fire which destroys everything it encounters. And that destruction can be terribly unhealthy. It can leave people bitter, burned husks incapable of loving themselves or others. It can cause trauma that makes it impossible to recover from.

My first (in person) boyfriend is an excellent example of a relationship that was a conflagration. All it took was a spark, and suddenly we weren’t just in each other’s lives, we were each other’s’ lives. Friends were concerned when we were apart (even though we had very different majors on a large university campus), and after it was over, it felt like our lives were completely over. Neither of us could figure out how to navigate the wreckage, and we had to rebuild completely.

3. The Campfire

Campfires are small, intentional, and utilitarian. We make them for heat in the cold, to boil water to drink, and to cook food and produce light. They must be carefully tended, crafted, and their function dictates their form. Is the campfire being burned for heat? Light? Cooking? Each looks different and takes different skills to cultivate.

Most importantly, they take intentionality. While some can translate a single campfire into different uses, that assumes other skills and more intentionality. People don’t set out and then accidentally find out that there’s a fire (à la slow burns, conflagrations, and chemical spills). Campfires and bonfires are built. They are commitment and intimacy at their core.

The benefits of campfires are plain: if you know what you want, you can set out to create it. Not only that, if you have the prerequisite skills, you can be reasonably sure that you’ll be successful. For those who have done so many times before, building the right campfire can be almost second nature.

The downside, of course, is that those skills are hard-won and take building many other campfires with others to supervise. And often the containment innate to them can become stifling; if a partner wants the possibility of becoming something different, a campfire situation makes that difficult. Not impossible, no, but it is hard to get into a position and expect one thing, only to have it change. A campfire left unchecked and untended can quickly become a conflagration or tantamount to a chemical spill.

My best example is my last major boyfriend. We dated for quite a while, and while there was some scope creep in the format our relationship took, it was ultimately intended for particular purposes. And when those purposes were met, and the campfire was no longer necessary? We put it out. Amicably. Lovingly. And you can bet we left the land better than we both found it.

4. The Bonfire

A bonfire has one primary job: to burn. They are temporary, they are large, but they are also controlled. They don’t require the same meticulous tending that campfires do because they are more generalized. They’re created to burn in a controlled environment and be able to be extinguished right after. They’re intentional, but unlike a campfire, that intention is less commitment, and more a commitment to impermanence. A bonfire is the avatar of intimacy and passion. They bring light and heat, but only so long as the fuel lasts.

And bonfires can be life-changing. They are powerful forces for change, even though they are constrained and directed. To create something so powerful and to hold it, even temporarily, is beautiful and rare. They allow for ecstatic joy and closeness that is ultimately singular and strange.

But they’re dangerous. A bonfire can quickly burn out of control, escape the confines of its intentions and become a conflagration. It can leave the world around it torched and changed for the worse if it’s not cared for.

I have a friend who is like this in others’ lives. He gets involved with men, and you can see them lose themselves within him. They become intoxicated by the raw sexuality and sensuousness of the being loved by him. And then it ends. Sometimes well, but more often they leave finding themselves drained and missing something.

Having had a high that they’ll chase forever more. “I don’t like to stick around,” he told me once, “it never gets better, but it’s always good when sex matters more than the love.”

5. The Bunsen Burner

Bunsen burners are minuscule, compared to the rest of these. A Bunsen burner fire is short. It has a distinct and specific purpose (to heat something), and an expiration. They cause a specific reaction and when that reaction is done? They’re extinguished.

There’s no building a Bunsen burner fire. There’s no smothering one. You supply the fuel or cut the gas line. You don’t set the heat, you raise the distance of the flame or the thing it’s heating. It’s very much an on/off situation.

These fires are genuine commitment. There’s a utility to them because you’re using them intentionally, but there’s no possibility of them growing or breaking loose (at least, not with proper lab safety). They’re controlled and by their very nature inhibit intimacy.

This may seem appalling to some, but many folks get in Bunsen burner relationships. People who swing or otherwise hookup, people who get into a knowingly short-term relationship. Even people doing sex work. Their primary benefits lie in that control.

But not everyone has good lab hygiene. Sometimes a reaction bubbles over. Sometimes you put the glass to close to the heat, and it explodes. Sometimes someone forgets to turn the gas off all the way, Laura from high school. And when these fires get out of control, they can be incredibly dangerous because they’re inherently used around hazardous components. Passion, intimacy, compassion, sex, these are the elements chemists cook with in romance. And when they explode, you can end up with worse than burn scarring.

6. The Chemical Spill

The chemical spill here is unique in that it’s not a fire, even though it burns. A chemical spill is also almost uniformly negative. They poison the environment around them, leaving participants scarred unrecognizably, and the landscapes irrevocably changed for the worse. And worst of all? They often go unnoticed until it is too late.

Because chemical spills can be subtle. Oh, certainly, they can also be intentional, but think about how many years it takes to discover a poisoned water supply when a company with hideous ethics violations allows chemical runoff into groundwater. They might be reversible, but some of the implications of their happenstance will plague everyone who came into contact with them for years after.

You see, chemical spills are missing stairs. They’re the people everyone sorta knows, and most folks get along with. They’re the fallout from people with a string of “crazy ex’s” who move from abuse to abuse on vulnerable people who are never truly believed until enough of them come forward. Even then, there’s always a faction that doesn’t think the stories all quite add up, or that, well, the person’s overall goodwill and expertise makes up for the bad they’ve done. After all, you can fix a chemical spill, right?

But the damage done is always done. Even if you “clean” the spill, it rarely heals those affected.

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Thanks Fluffy!

Readers, if you liked this piece, feel free to check out the other articles Fluffy has written for us:

    1. Love Is Basically Bias, So What Can You Do?
    2. I’m Too Anxious to Be Jealous
    3. Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Non-Monogamy My Puppy Taught Me All Over Again 
    4. Is There a Right Time or Way to Break Up a Relationship?
    5. I Was Treated as a Disease Vector: Why There Are So Few Gay Men in Pansexual Polyamory
    6. Being Single Sucks, But We Don’t Want to Hear About It
    7. Consent Culture Is Hard, Yo. 
    8. When Sex Positivity Is Rape Culture With a Bow On It.

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Poly Land is always on the lookout for different perspectives on relationships in general.

If you have an idea for a guest blog post that you’d like to run by us, here’s a link to a post with examples of work that we’ve published in the past as well as our Submission Guidelines.

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