Trying to Save Them with Your Love? Signs You Have White Knight Syndrome

Kelly E.

Your rescuing may be doing more harm than good.

Photo by Anh Lam on Unsplash

Do you put your own needs last to help others — your partner, your family, your friends? You may even draw in people who need saving. If you often find yourself in the resuce role, you might have White Knight Syndrome. For most of my life, I didn’t realize I was being a White Knight. I thought I was being kind. I was mistaken.

I was attracted to people who needed help. One guy in particular put my rescuer tendencies into overdrive.

The guy I tried to fix with love

A few weeks after meeting Max, we started hanging out a lot. We just clicked. He shared about his break up and how the girl he thought was the love of his life had betrayed him. He was obviously depressed.

I listened and he talked. “I’ve never told anyone these things,” he said. He opened up to me and the funny-guy facade that he used to keep people at a distance dropped away. His life started to turn around. He went to a counselor. He smiled more — and it was genuine this time, not just for show.

We started dating and for two months it was fantastic. We were students and had plenty of free time to go on road trips, plan adventures, and do silly things together. He still had a lot of issues, but I was learning to manage those. I could handle his mood swings and was getting used to his spontaneity. Things were improving for him but it was understandable that he’d still be struggling.

Then the honeymoon period ended

I was well and truly in love with Max after two months. Infatuated. He needed me by his side constantly and I wanted to be there. Every free moment I had was spent with him. But my “help” just wasn’t helping anymore. His study slipped and his mood swings increased. It was always someone else’s fault. The world against Max.

Soon, he felt like I was against him too.

Our relationship had clear rescuer-victim roles and while I thought he had all the issues, the truth is that the rescuer side of that dynamic was part of the problem.

“Staying with a partner whom you hope will change usually results in disappointment.” — Mary C. Lamia, PhD

Understanding the rescuer role

If you find yourself attracted to people who need rescuing, examine your self-worth. According to clinical psychologist Mary C. Lamia PhD, people who enter into relationships with damaged or vulnerable partners “hoping that love will transform their partners behavior or life” might have White Knight Syndrome.

She explains that both men and women can end up in the White Knight role. White Knights think they’re being loving or self-sacrificing, she says, but at the core of it are issues of low self-worth. The White Knight subconsciously believes that if they save their partner, they will be valued, loved, and their partner won’t leave them.

Why we rescue

When you’re helping someone you feel needed, you’re making a difference in someone’s life, and that’s a huge self-esteem boost!

Occasionally helping and doing kind things for others is great, the problem is when it is overused. Rescuers get a lot of validation and encouragement for their helping so it can be hard to identify as a problem.

In the rescuer role with Max and with other friends and family, I thought I was helping, that they needed me. I was building them up. Each time I fell into this role, I felt like I was being loving and kind towards someone who really needed my help.

Does that sound like any of your relationships? You think you’re making a difference. In truth, though, you’re setting yourself up for a painful journey.

When helping is really harming

Most of the time, rescuing doesn’t end well.

“Accept that what you see is what you’ll get,” says Mary Lamia, in her book The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others. “Once your relationship becomes firmly established, your partner’s personality and the way in which she treats you will most likely be what your future together will look like.”

Love won’t change someone, especially if they’re not committed to changing themselves. Sometimes we fall in love with a person’s potential, what they could be, or the idea of a future where they are healed because of our help.

As Mary says, “Staying with a partner whom you hope will change usually results in disappointment.”

Rescuing locks victims into helplessness and dependence on you. It can even become a form of control and manipulation. I know that’s hard to hear. I struggled with that idea when I came across it. But if you’re in a relationship where much of your energy is put into saving and pleasing the other person, it’s important to challenge your own behavior and ask a few questions.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I doing things for people that they could do for themselves?
  • Am I making them too reliant on me?
  • Is this an even relationship?
  • Do they really want or need my help?
  • Am I doing this to keep someone happy or please them?
  • Why is my way better anyway? Am I setting myself up as an “expert”
  • Could I support them to get professional help instead?

The rescuer role is hard to break away from, but it is possible to shift into a healthier one. For example, rescuers can turn their helping into “coaching”.

The Coach vs. The Rescuer

Coaches see other people as capable and able to help themselves. They support people but don’t do things for them. They believe in their friends and family members and expect them to take responsibility for themselves.

A rescuer says, “This is a problem I can fix for you.”

A coach says, “This is your problem and I’ll support you to tackle it.”

A coach asks questions and challenges people to take action for themselves. They support people to work out small realistic steps towards goals.

Rescuers encourage the person they care about to lean and depend on them.

Coaches encourage the person they care about to be independent and stand strong with them.

If you’ve found yourself in a White Knight role, examine your self-worth, step back from rescuing behavior, and learn to use a coach mindset instead.

There are plenty of resources available to understand this relationship dynamic, such as “The Dreaded Drama Triangle” TED Talk.

*names changed.

Comments / 0

Published by

For your uplifting local news. Bringing positivity back to the media. Viral online and magazine writer, bylines in Apple News Spotlight, Mamamia, Natural Parent, Thought Catalog and more.


More from Kelly E.

Comments / 0