Many men and women repeatedly enter into romantic relationships with damaged and vulnerable partners, hoping that love will transform their partner's behavior or lives. The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others (New Harbinger, June 2009) is written for the general public and takes a detailed look at the chronic rescuer.
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The White Knight Syndrome
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.
Though most white knights feel that they are selfless and sacrificing, often they are really seeking unconditional love and admiration from others because they see themselves as flawed, weak, or unlovable. Problems arise when white knights care for their partners at the expense of their own needs, enable abusive or self-destructive behavior in their partners, or try to control and make decisions for their partners.
The White Knight Syndrome explains the origins of this behavior, presents three subtypes of white knights, and shows readers how to channel their empathy and altruism into healthy, balanced relationships with supportive partners.
Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Marin County, and a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California.
Marilyn J. Krieger, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Marin County, California.
The Contemporary White Knight
A white knight can be a woman or man of any age, race, sexual orientation,
culture, or socioeconomic status. The contemporary real-life white knight may
appear to be a gem of a partner but is actually a tragic hero. White knights demonstrate not only a willingness but also a need to rescue. In fact, often without self-awareness, white knights seek out as partners those who are especially needy or vulnerable. Thus, in our conceptualization of the white knight syndrome, the inclination and the need to rescue are the fundamental requirements for white knighthood.
The White Knight Syndrome
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. These are our white knights. Although a white knight can exist in a wide range of relationships, such as in a business or a friendship, for the purposes of our book we will focus on the white knight in intimate relationships.
Behind the Motivation to Rescue
What motivates the white knight to rescue her partner? The answer lies in
understanding her goals for being in the relationship in the first place, goals that may be beyond her awareness. Although the white knight’s heroic actions may take the form of slaying her partner’s metaphorical dragons, her real goal involves slaying the dragons from her own past. The white knight hopes to receive admiration, validation, or love from her partner. Yet 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. Rather than repairing his sense of self, this repetition leaves the white knight feeling defeated. Until the white knight truly understands his motives, his quest for self-healing through perpetual rescuing is destined to result in unhappiness and failure.
Who This Book Is For
An understanding of the white knight syndrome will help you achieve a greater understanding of your own compulsive rescuing or the rescuing behavior of another person. By offering general discussions and case examples, we will provide you with a model you can use to assess any unhealthy tendencies you may have to rescue other people. We’ll explore the dynamics that give rise to the white knight syndrome and the relationships that typically evolve. This new understanding will help you to move beyond the choices and repetitive patterns that prevent you from forming healthy relationships and keep you unfulfilled.
The insights we provide can serve as the first step toward healing your-
self and help you create relationships with true emotional depth and warmth.
When you can give up knighthood and become a balanced rescuer, you will be
free to find a true and worthy partner.