In our previous post we provided a general understanding of the white knight syndrome: a compulsive need to be the rescuer in an intimate relationship originating from early life experiences that left the white knight feeling damaged, guilty, shamed, or afraid. We will now turn to an overview of the basic characteristics common to white knights.

White knights often have a history of loss, abandonment, trauma, or unrequited love. Many of them were deeply affected by the emotional or physical suffering of a caregiver. In our work with white knights we've found them to be emotionally sensitive and vulnerable; traits that cause them to be hurt easily by others.

Empathy, the ability to understand and identify with the feelings of another, is a highly developed character trait of all white knights. Yet the white knight's ability to put herself into another person's shoes can be used either to help or, unfortunately, to control or hurt her partner.

After carefully reviewing the cases that met our definition of a white knight, we created a list of traits and behaviors that characterize the white knight. Typically, white knights have a history that includes many of the following:
• Self-defeating behavior that may involve substance abuse
• Heightened awareness in childhood of a parent's hardships
• Childhood neglect
• Childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
• Loss or threat of loss of a significant caregiver in childhood
• Repeatedly finding partners who need rescuing

A white knight typically has many of the following character traits:
• Fears emotional distance
• Is very emotionally vulnerable and sensitive
• Has a tendency to idealize the partner
• Has an extreme need to be viewed as important or unique
• Tends to be self-critical or reactively blames, devalues, and manipulate others
In relationships, a white knight tends to show many of the following behaviors:
• Is attracted to a needy partner or a partner with a history of trauma, loss, abuse, or addiction
• Fears being separated from the partner, losing the partner's love or approval, or being abandoned by the partner
• Engages in controlling behavior, often under the guise of helping
• Maintains or restores connection with the partner by being extremely helpful or good
• Responds ambivalently to the partner's success
• Describes a sense of "oneness" with the partner
• Fails to recognize the partner's manipulative behaviors
• Is seduced by the sexual or dramatic behavior of the partner
• Evokes strong feelings in the partner in order to avoid his or her own emotional discomfort
• Maintains hope for a gratifying relationship by denying the reality of the partner's issues

Identifying these commonalities among white knights led us to create subtypes of rescuers based upon dominant clusters of personality characteristics and behaviors. Our next post will introduce these white knight subtypes and the balanced rescuer.

(Excerpted in part from The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others By Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D. and Marilyn Krieger, Ph.D)

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*This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.

About the Authors

Marilyn Krieger, Ph.D.

Marilyn J. Krieger, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Marin County, CA.

Mary Lamia, Ph.D.

Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Marin County, California.

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The White Knight Syndrome