The Stool Test

Toward a Unified Field Theory of Human Relations


This a generalized theory of how humans ‘attach’ to each other; by its nature it involves great simplifications and ignores nuances, but it appears to have considerable explanatory power. It might also fall into the ‘obvious’ category for some people, but re-stating the obvious in a new way never hurts if it helps overall clarity of thought.

For those who tend to take things too literally, this is an analogy which can help visualize the forces at work in relationship formation but is in no way intended to be a literal description. Like people, if you torture an analogy enough, it will confess to anything, so beware of what it tells you...

I Node it from the Outset

NodesThe premise here is that all people have three (and only three) principal attachment nodes which bond them to others. Of course, these attachment nodes operate more like gecko feet than a single point (see below), but these three nodes do seem to be the main anchors in any relationship and can be usefully dealt with as a simplification. Like nodes in a neural net, these nodes do interact and modulate the ‘stickiness’ of each other, but the nodes themselves have their own specific influences which are the major determinants of their strength of attachment. The three nodes are:

IntellectIntellectual – how a person thinks, what they think about, their values, etc. This attachment is governed by speech/communication. Unsurprisingly, people become attracted to each other when they share similar views on life, although some are attracted by opposites – maybe they both just like to argue.

SensualPhysical/sexual (in the broad sense) – the giving, receiving and sharing of physical sensations, generally pleasurable ones, but not always. This attachment is mainly moderated by touch, but also by smell and taste. Sensuality is a good synonym for this attachment.

EmotionEmotional – empathy, spirituality and overall emotional ‘temperature’; warm and approachable, cool and distant, etc. It is here where it appears that opposites may also show a strong attraction. The type of attraction is generally irrelevant for the relationship, as long as the attraction is strong, stable and does not negatively affect any of the other attachment nodes.

Now, the Stool

Now that we have defined three basic attachment nodes, we can look at the different ways two individuals can interconnect through these nodes. Initially, since it is more familiar, we can use the analogy of a stool (to sit on – not the other kind) to look at stability. This is the ‘stool test’… Of course, a stool rests on a surface and ultimately we are talking about two autonomous individuals (unless one happens to be nailed to the floor), but the same principle holds true; we are talking about ‘degrees of freedom’, that is, how much movement can take place in a system, and for a relationship, one really doesn’t want so much movement that things fall apart. Note that for this analogy, we are assuming that attachments between individuals will always be to identical types of attachment nodes.

Milking stoolIf you think of a stool, it can have one or more legs, and their number determines its use and stability. For example, if you sit on a one-legged stool, it keeps you off the ground but you are free to move left and right, forward and backwards. The one leg has reduced the degrees of freedom from three to two. Although it doesn’t sound like a very useful type of stool, it is excellent for special purposes. Some milking stools and those once used for explosives manufacturing (so you can’t go to sleep on the job – BOOM) used a single leg. Likewise, some ‘special purpose’ relationships can be defined by their type of single node (or leg) interaction:

Intellectual--<>--Intellectual = Acquaintance
Sensual--<>---Sensual = Hook-up
Emotional--<>--Emotional = Confidant/confessor

These types of attachments, although they can temporarily be strong are usually impermanent. With two degrees of freedom remaining, the relationship is ‘wobbly’ and can easily be upset. When you have only one attachment node, even if it is very strong, there are two more which are either not attached at all, or very loosely so, and if these flail around in the social ‘breeze’ and become attached to another person and form a stronger bond, or if more than one node is attached, this single bond is easily pulled apart. But, when we look at relationships which share two nodes, we find they are more stable.

Intellectual--<>--Intellectual + Emotional--<>--Emotional = Friendship (partial bonding)
Intellectual--<>--Intellectual + Sensual--<>--Sensual = Companion (transactional)
Emotional--<>--Emotional + Sensual--<>--Sensual = Lover/Romantic (stimulative)

These two-point bonds can be quite durable if they involve a strong attachment point, which is usually the ‘Emotional’ one. In fact, if the ‘gecko feet’ attachment points are large enough, they can support multiple such relationships, even with a fully-bonded pair. To carry the stool analogy a little farther along, a two-legged stool now only allows front-back or side-side movement, but this can make it convenient for those jobs that need a stable platform but require at least some movement. Again, some old milking stools were an example of this; you can’t fall sideways, but you can lean back and forth under the cow as needed. Like our much-abused stool, adding a third and final leg removes all degrees of freedom and results in a completely stable platform and will and remain so as long as all the attachment nodes stay strong. .

Intellectual--<>--Intellectual + Emotional--<>--Emotional + Sensual--<>--Sensual = Mate

In reality, it is likely that all three nodes have some degree of attachment in any relationship, but the stronger any given node is, the greater the chance of stability. Depending upon the social environment, it makes sense to strengthen those nodes where there is the most outside ‘competition’ for that particular attachment, and in no case let any of them fall loose and flail in the social breeze. Here is where our friendly gecko comes in.

Now, Going Down To De-feet

Gecko footGecko feet are seemingly simple but a complex and completely amazing structure. They allow the little lizard to scamper up walls and across ceilings, even if they are made of glass. For traction, most animals use little claws or ‘stickum’ to give their feet traction on treacherous surfaces, but I confess that I wouldn’t want little claws or glue on any of my attachment nodes, so that is where the gecko comes in. The feet are smooth and pliable, with a few fingerprint-like ridges, but they will cling to almost anything. Their secret is that each foot is covered in microscopic modified hairs, about one million of them per square millimeter, and at the tip of each hair is a very tiny blob. The blog is not sticky, but because it is so small, it has a tiny electrical field which will be pulled to a corresponding field on a surface (Van Der Waal’s force, if you must know). The attachment is not strong, but there are millions of these attachment points, and they are strong enough to keep the little critter tight on any surface.

Foot hairsIf we consider the attachment nodes of a relationship to be like one of these feet, we don’t have just a gluey ‘blob’ that sticks to anything but is rather a large series of tiny attachments whose net force holds the nodes together. Obviously, like the gecko’s foot, the more of the tiny attachments that can be stuck together, the stronger the bond. Now, some may be asking “If the foot attachments are so strong, how does the little bastard move at all?” Good question, and relevant to our analogy.

The lizard can’t pick up his feet all at once, but recall that the individual attachments are relatively weak. The lizard rocks the foot, lifting off only a part at a time, and when enough of the attachment points are removed, the foot can then be pulled free. The analogy is that with relationships, no matter how firm the attachment is as a whole, it can be undermined in gradual stages if the small attachments are allowed to disappear. Like the foot, there are always some points coming unstuck, but the lizard wiggles the foot to enable new ones to form, keeping the attachment firm, and this process applies equally to the relationships (although wiggling is not required – it may be helpful). To torture the analogy a little more, we can consider other factors, not themselves nodes or attachment points, but rather things which modify how well things stick.

Booties for De-Feet

PinnochioTake, for example, honesty. In our analogy, honesty, both to yourself and your partner, makes sure the attachment points land in the right place. The gecko knows better than to place his feet where they have no chance of sticking, and in a relationship, if either party lacks honesty, there is no way to tell if any given attachment point will stick or not since you don’t really know what it is. Too many falsely-placed attachments can quickly undermine the stability of any node.

KnotCommitment is another important modifier. If the lizard feels a foot is losing traction, he will shift it, sometimes subtly, to allow it to re-attach more strongly. In a relationship, there will always be points coming loose, from age, illness, external stress and so on, so at least one partner will need to either find new attachment points to strengthen the node or to strengthen another one (down with the chess, up with the sex – or maybe vice-versa). Note that honesty and commitment are two voluntary modifiers which affect the strength of the bonds. They do not have to be perfect, but one has to be aware of them and how to use them if a ‘foot’ starts to slip.

LoveThose of you who have read this far may have noticed that ‘Love’ did not get a mention as an attachment node or a voluntary modifier. This is because I believe love is a non-voluntary, emergent property of the attachment process itself and strengthens all of the bonds but is not a discrete node by itself. In other words, in the absence of the other attachments, love does not exist. Love, however, although not strictly necessary for a stable relationship, certainly strengthens it and makes it a lot more fun. If your partner does not love you, your jokes will not be as funny, your dinner may not be as warm, and you may be accused of having the lovemaking skills of a drunken plowboy. On the other hand, love has powerful effects, and suddenly you are the comic of the year, your food is always ready on time and prepared just the way you want it, and she is crazy about the size of your d**k (or at least not so disappointed that it’s tiny).