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Tortoises and Hares


by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Quite different from Airplanes and Submarines are Tortoises and Hares. While the former points to arousal preference for either high sympathetic or low parasympathetic states, the latter refers to mental processing speed, or “RPMs” as I like to call it. There are Hare and Tortoise partners in my office quite often. The Hare will run circles around the Tortoise partner, especially during periods of distress. It’s important to note that the Tortoise is never fast and the Hare is never slow, distress notwithstanding. However, when partners become aroused during conflict it becomes evident that the Hare has the advantage and must be cautioned against disorienting or steamrolling his/her partner.

A Hare must be careful not to induce mutual dysregulation within the couple system by losing and befuddling his or her slower partner. Moving too fast, both verbally and non-verbally, can appear threatening and even predatory. The tortoise must help his or her faster partner slow down in a manner not threatening to the other.

As with the Airplane/Submarine example, the fastest person must show more flexibility and accommodation for their slower partner. To be very clear, processing speed, particularly of the verbal kind, is unrelated to intelligence. A person operating at a higher RPM is no smarter than a person operating at slower speeds. However, when it comes to distress relief and repair, which should be the goal of all romantic partnerships, speed matters.

Copyright 2012 — Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. — all rights reserved



  1. Is there a tie-in with attachment styles : avoidant and ambivalent/anxious in your construct?
    Might be that the avoidant has the luxury of moving more slowly and with more consideration but it is often the avoidant that has the control through the dynamic of withholding (rather than losing asmin the above example) . The anxious one often moves faster (adrenalin fueled) but also tends to lose. The “anxious-hare” causes dysregulation but does not generally win.
    Have a case example if you wish


  2. michaelmdow says:

    Love this concept, Stan. Wondering if hares also tend to talk/move fast or if it’s just a mental thing. Do you know what research there is on this?


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