Have you ever felt the need to wade in and rescue your partner?
Do you see their faults? Do you see their failings and their fears and feel that you can be the strong white knight who comes to their rescue?
While this might sound like a nice sentiment and while it might come from the right place, it can actually be very unhealthy and lead to a destructive relationship for you both.
Don’t feel bad, this is a common approach to relationships – especially in men – and so much so that psychologists have coined the term ‘White Knight Syndrome’ to describe it. In this post, we’ll take a look at what exactly White Knight Syndrome really is, whether or not you might be guilty of it and how to overcome it if you are.
What Is White Knight Syndrome?
Often someone who experiences white knight syndrome will find themselves drawn to relationships where they feel there is something they can ‘fix’. Thus, they might gravitate toward women who they see as being in need of rescuing – whether financially, emotionally, physically or all three.
This immediately creates problems.
For starters, it creates the perception that women – as a whole – are typically the weaker species in need of rescuing. This is a notion that the vast majority of women today would vehemently disagree with and be rightfully rather offended by.
It also places pressure and expectation on the man himself. It paints a picture of men as being either wholly good or evil – literally ‘black and white’ – whereas in reality we are all much more complex than that. A man with full-blown ‘white knight syndrome’ might be playing a role rather than truly being themselves, which will prevent them from being to express themselves or to show other sides of their personality. Men need rescuing too and we need to understand this if we’re going to develop healthily.
Regardless of the implied sexism (and women can also be guilty of the complex), this approach to relationships will instantly introduce an imbalance. IT assumes that the ‘white knight’ (as they see themselves) is not in need of rescuing or fixing and therefore is the stronger or superior partner. Their way must be best and their partner must be indebted to them. That’s not a great start for an equal relationship.
Yes, of course some people will relish being taken care of and will enjoy getting to be the helpless damsel. But this doesn’t necessarily make it healthy – as they can then become far too dependent on that person to the point of losing some of their own identity or independence.
Worse is when the woman is all too aware that she does not need a white knight. In this scenario she is likely to embrace the man’s arrogance and presumption, while he will be left wondering what he has done wrong.
White knight syndrome can also be seen outside of romantic relationships. Many men and some women will be equally inclined to try and rescue their friends, their family members and others.
Where Does White Knight Syndrome Come From?
So where does this syndrome come from?
One obvious culprit is the media – not just television but stories and myths dating back millennia. We have been portraying the archetypal white knight and damsel in distress in countless stories and tales and this is a mainstay as seen in Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces (1).
It’s no surprise then that some men will have taken this message to heart and to imagine that this is how women want to be treated – that they have to be the stoic, fearless white knight and that they should prevent their ‘princess’ from lifting a single finger.
It could also be seen as an ego defence mechanism. If we were to go the Freudian, psychodynamic route, then we might say that the man is projecting his own weaknesses onto the women he seeks to protect. He feels insecure and powerless and his way of proving to himself that that is not the case, is to divert all of his energy to looking after someone else. You can’t possibly be vulnerable if you’re looking after someone else… right?
This might be a sign of narcissism or just a very fragile ego. And in that case, any information presented that could harm that fragile self-image might be violently rejected. This could lead to a controlling and possibly even violent relationship in extreme examples.
How to ‘Cure’ White Knight Syndrome
So with all that in mind, what can you do to address this issue and to stop acting like the white knight in your own relationships?
The start, as ever, is to recognize the traits and to acknowledge them as negative. This is a good start, as it will help you to be aware when you are slipping into bad habits.
It can also help to surround yourself with some strong women – ideally in a non-romantic context. If you spend time with female friends and relatives, then you will see that they very often do not need rescuing at all and would in fact react quietly badly to a man who presumes that they do!
But most important is to spend some time building up your self-esteem and finding who you really are in a relationship. That will likely mean spending some time single and reflecting on the way you are with friends and relatives. It’s corny and old-fashioned sure, but it’s usually best just to be yourself. And I can assure you, that’s no white knight!