White knight syndrome is the compulsive need to be a rescuer in a romantic relationship.
This syndrome often stems from experiences from the “white knight’s” childhood, where their parent or caretaker suffered emotional or physical pain regularly.
Because they were a child at the time, the white knight felt powerless over the suffering that occurred in their household. When they reach adulthood, they’ll often subconsciously seek out partners prone to suffering and want to cure them of that suffering in order to make up for what they couldn’t do as a child.
White knight syndrome may look like one person just being heroic to the vulnerable partner they’re helping, but this syndrome actually has dark emotional pain and can leave the “rescuer” sacrificing their own needs to help others.
White knight syndrome stems first and foremost from a need to portray yourself as selfless and giving.
It may even lead to the rescuer getting controlling over their partners and family members because they believe they “know what’s best” for the other person.
In their childhood, the white knight may have experienced abandonment or had a consistent threat of abandonment. They may have also experienced abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, substance) or neglect. In other cases, the white knight’s parents simply shared knowledge of their hardships, and the white knight child wanted to do something to help.
These traumas can make the white knight prone to hyper-emotional sensitivity. Because they’re especially susceptible to getting hurt, this pattern of finding partners who need a lot of caregiving can aggravate the white knight’s pain and make them feel like they “need” to rescue others — even if they always end up hurt in the end.
These issues may sound familiar to you, and perhaps you’re worried that you exhibit these behaviors. So how can you tell if you have white knight syndrome so you can get help?
Here are 5 subtle signs you have white knight syndrome:
1. You have a tendency to find partners that need “rescuing.”
Because you couldn’t save your parent or yourself from the pain experienced during your childhood, you try to make up for it by saving your romantic partners in your adult life.
You may find that your dating history consists of people with drug problems, histories of abuse, psychological disorders or illnesses, or a low sense of self-worth. The drama that this partnership brings attracts the white knight in you because dysfunction is all you know.
This gives you the opportunity to feel needed and may lead to you having highly incompatible romantic relationships in which you feel as though you’re always giving parts of yourself and not receiving what you need in return.
2. You over-romanticize the idea of your partner.
Although your partner may have a lot of issues, you put them on a pedestal. You see the potential for how they could be because of all the positive qualities you see in them.
Then, you try to fix their problems for them in an act of “saving” them. The problem with this is that you cannot help people unless they want help. Most of the time that help needs to come from a professional, not their romantic partner.
This idealization is often justified in the white knight’s mind as love, but real love is accepting your partner, flaws and all, and recognizing that they are human, not some sort of god or goddess.
3. You cling to your partner to validate your sense of self.
People with white knight syndrome cannot stand emotional distance, which can often lead to codependency. The fear of abandonment evokes a feeling of need for your partner in order to feel whole.
White knights need to feel important and needed because so much of their identity revolves around helping the person that they love. Losing the relationship with a partner can bring back the feeling of abandonment you may have felt as a child. It may feel like you’ve failed in “saving” your partner.
But relationships end for many different reasons, and that ending could be a chance for you and your partner to get the real help that you need.
4. You have been accused of being controlling.
If you are a white knight, you may try to eliminate emotional distance and “save” your partner by attempting to control your partner’s actions and life.
You may see these actions as just being helpful, but telling your partner what to do, who to see, or how to behave is not helpful, it’s controlling.
These controlling behaviors are probably subconscious, but they tend to drive the partner away, which dooms the white knight to feel the abandonment they were trying to avoid, and thus the cycle continues.
5. You don’t reciprocate vulnerability.
The white knight feels like they have to be the strong one, the rock, in the relationship. Despite their sensitivity to emotions, they don’t want to show that vulnerability to anyone — including their partner.
If you’re a white knight, in your childhood, you may have not been nurtured in the way you needed.
In your adult life, you continue to expect others to not be able to provide emotional care, either; it’s because your family taught you that others couldn’t be counted on to handle your emotional needs, and so you believe that you’re strong enough to take on your pain and everyone else’s, too.
As a white knight in a romantic relationship, you may feel like because your partner needs you to save them, and in turn, they’re incapable of saving you.
But relationships are about give and take; both people need to be vulnerable, and both people need to be supportive — not controlling — of one another.
If these signs sound familiar to you, please reach out for help in dealing with white knight syndrome, so you don’t have to carry that pain with you anymore.