Introduction to the White Knight Syndrome
By Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D. and Marilyn J. Krieger, Ph.D. excerpted in part from The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others.
In legends and folklore, the white knight rescues the damsel in distress, falls in love, and saves the day. Real-life white knights are men and women who enter into romantic relationships with damaged and vulnerable partners, hoping that love will transform their partner's behavior or lives; a relationship pattern that seldom leads to a storybook ending. White knights can be any age, race, sexual orientation, culture, or socioeconomic status, but all have the inclination and the need to rescue. Although white knights can exist in a wide range of relationships, such as in a business or a friendship, we will limit our focus to the white knight in intimate relationships.
Take a few moments to consider the various relationships you know about or those in which you've been involved. It's likely you know of relationships that include people who have found partners in need of rescuing. The rescue could have been from anything—unhappiness, financial chaos, substance abuse, depression, an abusive relationship, medical issues, or a past that left them wounded. Perhaps the rescuers you know intuitively recognized their partners' core neediness or vulnerability, regardless of how well disguised that person's weakness was at the beginning of their relationship.
You will discover that many rescuers often go from one person in need of rescue to another, riding into each new partner's life on a white horse to save the day. In the initial stages of the relationship, the rescuer seems gracious and happily altruistic, but as time goes by, he feels increasingly unhappy, disappointed, critical, and powerless.
Although the white knight's heroic actions may take the form of slaying her partner's metaphorical dragons, her real goal, which is often beyond her awareness, involves slaying the dragons from her own past. Thus, at a deeper level, the compulsive rescuer is trying to repair the negative or damaged sense of herself that developed in childhood.
Unfortunately, the white knight's choice of a partner, and how that partner is eventually treated, often repeats symbolically the very same kind of distress that the white knight himself experienced in childhood. Ultimately, rather than repairing his sense of self, this repetition leaves the white knight feeling defeated.
An understanding of the white knight syndrome will help you achieve a greater awareness of your own compulsive rescuing or the rescuing behavior of another person. Our upcoming posts will offer general discussions and case examples that will provide you with a model you can use to asses any unhealthy tendencies you may have to rescue others. We will explore ways to channel your empathy and altruism into healthy, balanced relationships with supportive partners.
This post 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.