What Is White Knight Syndrome?
White knight syndrome is a term used to describe someone who feels compelled to “rescue” people in intimate relationships, often at the expense of their own needs. Although the term frequently refers to males who rush to save the perceived “damsel in distress,” anyone of any gender can technically suffer from White Knight Syndrome. In fact, since women are socialized to be emotional caretakers in relationships, it makes sense that they too can also demonstrate signs of White Knight Syndrome in their relationships, though it may present somewhat differently.
Clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Mary Lamia, author of The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others, notes that there are different “subtypes” of White Knights. These subtypes can include the overly empathic rescuer who grows up in a household catering to neglectful parents to the terrorized rescuer who lashes out or manipulates due to a deep sense of shame from childhood terrors.
Gender Differences in the Presentation of White Knight Syndrome
Male partners who are “White Knights” may idealize women and put them on a pedestal, taking their notions of chivalry a wee bit too far. They may be actively drawn to women who seem helpless and need of support (such as those with a history of untreated trauma or self-harm) and treat their partners as extensions of themselves, criticizing and controlling them under the guise of “just trying to help.”
Subconsciously, they may feel resentment towards women who do not give them undying love and loyalty in return, because they rescue not necessarily out of pure altruism but with the expectation or hope that their own needs will be met – that they will somehow be rewarded for their rescue efforts.
Female partners who exhibit “White Knight Syndrome” may behave similarly but as they are socially conditioned to take on the role of nurturers, they may be more likely drawn to taking care of significant others who have addictions, abusive patterns or infidelity issues.
They may be overly empathic to the point of denial about the fact that their partners have any self-control over their behavior. They may be more prone to making excuses for their partners, believing they “can’t help it” and help to “hide” their destructive behavior from the world, shielding them from consequences or accountability.
White Knight Syndrome or Codependency?
The symptoms of White Knight Syndrome can overlap with certain traits of codependency but its focus lies primarily in the individual’s need to rescue people from themselves, not necessarily enabling an addiction (although an addiction can certainly play a role).
In fact, some white knights can suffer from addiction issues themselves and may avoid confronting their own struggles by emphasizing the problems of their significant other.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with feeling compassion for others and helping them, doing so without boundaries to the extent of harming your own welfare can leave an unhealthy impact on your life.
5 Signs You Have White Knight Syndrome
You may have White Knight Syndrome if you exhibit the following behaviors and traits:
1. You base your self-worth on your ability to “fix” people. White knights pride themselves on “saving” others and this is a core part of their identity in relationships. Rather than opening themselves up to true intimacy where both parties in a relationship are emotionally fulfilled, they unconsciously seek out unhealthy partners who appear to most need them. They are drawn to those who have severe emotional issues and feel fixated on healing the other person. In doing so, however, they often neglect to save themselves from toxic relationships and are unable to focus on healing themselves first and foremost.
2. You have a history of unhealed abandonment wounds. White knights usually come from families with one or more toxic caretakers or a history of abandonment. They may have helped rescue their parents or taken on the parent role as young children – perhaps to an alcoholic father or mother.
Since no one came to rescue them, they now project their own need for saving onto others by becoming a “rescuer” themselves. They try to provide others with what they never received, but they do so to the point of “enmeshment” – becoming unhealthily obsessed or entangled in the issues of their significant other and trying to solve their problems.
3. You gravitate towards those who are overly needy and dramatic, often idealizing them. This is especially true for male white knights who tend to find the dramatic or destructive behavior of their partners strangely seductive. You place your partners on a pedestal, infantalize them and treat them as if they were “fragile” and unable to take care of themselves. In doing so, however, you encourage an unhealthy dependence in which the partner begins to rely on your emotional labor just to survive.
4. You attempt to control and micromanage your partner’s life in an attempt to “help” them. You become hyperfocused on what your partner should or shouldn’t do as a way to prevent them from being harmed. But secretly, this form of control stems from a lack of control over your own life. Under the guise of assisting your partner to better themselves, you successfully take the focus off of addressing your own plight or wounding.
5. In response to emotional distance, you seek to manipulate or ensnare your partner back into the dance of dependency. If your partner establishes agency or tries to be independent, you find ways (whether you’re aware of it or not) of making them rely on you for feedback and support. This is different from empathic reciprocity in which both partners support each other equally; it involves one person taking on playing the role of “parent” to their significant other and causing them to feel helpless without their support.
From Savior to Self-Care
If you feel you suffer from White Knight Syndrome or symptoms of codependency, it’s important to evaluate your relationship patterns, heal your core abandonment wounds and reestablish agency over your own life. Realize where you might be projecting your own vulnerabilities and unmet needs onto others so you can stop being drawn to fixing people who are not interested in being saved or can only save themselves. When you’re so busy trying to rescue someone else, you might forget the person who truly needs saving – yourself.