Is White Knight Syndrome a Bad Thing?

What is white knight syndrome about?
on January 04, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Prince charming can come in many different guises, with white knight syndrome often appearing in these fairytale fantasies. 

This white knight figure is like the problematic prince of modern dating, with these heroic tendencies often becoming a bit of a pain in the neck as time goes on. While swooping in to save the day seems romantic the first time, it soon loses its charm, leaving many toxic tendencies in its wake. 

Lugging that metaphorical sword around sounds pretty exhausting, so if you’re sick of being the white knight in your relationship — it’s time to lay down your arms and look beyond the archaic models of the fairytales… 

Key Takeaways
  • White Knight Syndrome involves a compulsive need to rescue others in relationships, originating from the medieval concept of a knight rescuing a damsel in distress. It's not gender-specific and can emerge in anyone, often as a way to feel needed or validated.
  • In dating, this syndrome manifests as a pattern where one partner continuously tries to 'save' the other, leading to unhealthy dynamics. It may seem like genuine care but often stems from a desire for validation or to fulfill a rescue fantasy.
  • There are several factors that can contribute to the development of White Knight Syndrome in relationships, including childhood experiences, self-esteem issues, societal expectations, certain attachment styles, and narcissistic tendencies.
  • This syndrome can lead to unequal relationship dynamics, constant need for validation, erosion of boundaries, and an obstacle to genuine intimacy. It often results in the development of a co-dependent dynamic, where one partner is in control.
  • White knight syndrome can be overcome with effective therapy, so both partners can understand the issue at hand and work towards establishing balance in the relationship.

What is white knight syndrome? 

White knight syndrome derives from the idea of a medieval knight in shining armor who would rescue a damsel in distress and become the hero of the story — with the damsel indebted to him from then on! 

While the origin of the story is gender-specific to men, in real life anyone can suffer from white knight syndrome, especially since women can often take on the role of emotional caretakers. 

This term was first defined by Marilyn J. Krieger Ph.D., and Mary C. Lamia Ph.D. in 2015, with the white knight of the modern era defined as someone who intentionally seeks out damsels to date — to make themselves feel validated and needed in relationships. 

This role as the rescuer is often taken too far, where it becomes a compulsive need to rescue others to be seen as the “nice guy” rather than out of genuine care or pure altruism. This is where the negative connotations of white knight syndrome come from, as these behaviors can be rooted in a place of low self-esteem, self-worth issues, or even narcissism.

What is the white knight syndrome in dating?

When it comes to white knight syndrome in the dating world, it’s usually seen as a behavioral pattern where one’s partner feels compelled to save their loved one from real or perceived danger continuously. 

While some people exhibit these behaviors from a place of genuine love and concern, this branch of care isn’t often associated with healthy relationships. Instead, in the dating world, it’s usually seen as a search for validation from one’s partner. 

Even though on the surface it may seem sweet, it isn’t always what it seems — especially if these acts of heroism continuously arise (particularly when you weren’t aware that you needed saving). 

Therefore, the white knight syndrome can be a way to fulfill a rescue fantasy or to establish an atmosphere of codependency, setting the scene for a dysfunctional and potentially toxic relationship. 

What causes white knight syndrome?

Several things can trigger white knight syndrome, with these tendencies usually appearing in romantic relationships, regardless of the gender dynamics. 

There are many different types of white knight syndrome, including the balanced rescuer, the terrorizing, or the tarnished white knight, with each subtype triggered by different causes and circumstances. 

1. Childhood experiences

The white knight syndrome can be traced back to early childhood, especially if one was deprived of a stable caregiver. 

If someone grew up in an environment where they were often relied upon to step up or take care of themselves or their family members, perhaps if their parents were absent or alcoholics, this can have a substantial impact on their later lives. 

Therefore, this behavior can be a learned response from early family dynamics, and they may not even realize that they’re constantly swooping in to save the day! 

2. Self-esteem issues

If your partner has underlying self-esteem issues, it’s more natural that they will seek validation or reassurance in the relationship. 

Even though it might look like a grand gesture of kindness, it’s a cloaked desire for praise from someone who is craving emotional closeness,  therefore rooted in a fulfillment of their own needs rather than of their partner. 

While this doesn’t have to develop into a toxic behavior if their sense of self-worth becomes intertwined with these actions — it could spell trouble in the long run. 

“In clinical therapy, I have seen this pattern get identified even after low self-esteem has been attended, now someone might use all their therapy knowledge to help the people they are dating or partner identify their mental health concerns and start them on their healing journey,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

“What can happen is that supportive partner’s craving to know they helped, often has them missing the key fact that we each need to have the desire and motivation to work on our own mental health, someone can’t do it for us.” 

“I might ask a client, does your partner identify that they are struggling with depression for example or do you want those symptoms to be reduced?”

3. Social influences

The white knight swooping to save his damsel in distress — it’s a tale as old as time. Society naturally reinforces this idea in day-to-day life, and it’s bound to rub off on us! In this case, men may feel that there is a societal expectation that they should ‘man up’, painting the role of a white knight as desirable in modern society. 

However, as pointed out by Krieger and Lamia, those who seek out damsels for saving can cheat themselves out of healthy relationships — as the thrill of this dynamic naturally wears off over time. 

4. Attachment style

Following on from early childhood experiences, attachment styles naturally affect this dynamic. 

When it comes to the white knight syndrome, people who seek this structure are usually associated with an anxious attachment, as they fear emotional neglect and overcompensate in response. 

While it may come across as neediness, it’s a fear of abandonment, as they try and establish themselves as essential so they won’t get left behind. 

“A parent might have done a lot of things for them but did not teach, model, or support them in learning to do things for themselves. So now they are showing love in the same ways,” says Seeger DeGeare.

5. Narcissistic tendencies 

For narcissists, the white knight set-up can be a dream scenario, as they are viewed as the hero in their relationship. This has a dual function as it allows them to constantly feed their ego, whilst also leading their partner to believe that they need them to cope. 

This helps to establish a codependent dynamic, where the narcissistic individual is pulling the strings and controlling the relationship overall. 

Signs of white knight syndrome in romantic relationships 

Within an intimate relationship, it can be difficult to see beyond the fairytale in your own life, as we often want to see the best in people. 

While it’s tempting to fall for the fantasy, it’s important to have the know-how to spot these tendencies — before they tarnish your relationship for good. 

Constant rescuing behavior: While it can feel good to be saved from time to time, this shouldn’t be a frequent occurrence. If one partner is constantly stepping in to save the day, without being asked or when it’s not needed, it’s not a good sign! This can include financial assistance, constant advice, or even interfering in arguments or situations that don’t include them.
Choosing damsels: If your partner is a fan of the feeling of being a white knight, it could spill over in their choice of dates. They may intentionally choose people who seem lost or need ‘saving’ to make themselves feel good.
Unequal relationship dynamics: These kinds of relationships can feel one-sided, where one person is always the savior, while the other is seen as the dependent.
Need for validation: It’s normal to want to do nice things for your partner (or even your best friend), but while it’s important to show your appreciation, the quest for validation can feel quite different. They may provoke you into affirming their role in the relationship, with your praise essential to their well-being.
Lack of healthy boundaries: White knight syndrome naturally erodes boundaries in a relationship, as one person is constantly involving themselves to upkeep their role as the hero.
Fear of intimacy: The role of the white knight is often put in place to act as a barrier to intimacy, with their position as heroes preventing a more authentic connection from developing.

Is white knight syndrome a bad thing? 

As with every relationship dynamic, it’s important to assess the circumstances and severity involved before automatically labeling it as toxic! 

Since there are various strains of the white knight archetype, it doesn’t automatically deserve to be outlawed… or beheaded. (Excuse the medieval puns, we couldn’t help ourselves!)

When looking at your relationship, it’s important to consider the ‘white knight’ in question, and if their behaviors have created an unhealthy dynamic between you. They aren’t automatically a villain, and should at least be given a fair trial. (Ok, we’ll stop…) 

If your partner is trying to establish a white knight archetype in your relationship, it can lead to several worrying consequences. For example, individuals who chase this unsustainable dynamic can neglect their own needs by trying to constantly be the hero, eventually leading to resentment toward their partner. Therefore, these relationships are usually unsustainable long-term, as they inevitably burn out over time. 

These relationships are usually very unbalanced, with one partner establishing themselves as the hero and their partner as the dependent. This also allows them to avoid their issues, with all of the negative and weaker qualities attributed to their partner. 

While all of these tendencies add up to a toxic dynamic, the white knight can also be rooted in more fairytale-friendly circumstances.

For example, your partner could simply have an innate altruism and simply want to take care of their loved ones to the best of their ability. In this case, it can be genuinely reassuring to have someone you can rely on in times of need — even though the magic of a dependable partner is usually a quality that fairytales forget about! 

It’s all about the context of your circumstances, and how your partner’s position in your relationship is making you feel.

How to defeat white knight syndrome 

Due to the problematic nature of the white knight in relationships, it’s important to know how to effectively deal with this syndrome, so that you can both come out as the victor! 

Whether you’re the white knight yourself or are dating one, vanquishing this modern relationship specter takes a multifaceted approach. However, with effective communication, self-awareness, and healthy boundaries, we still foresee a happy ending in your future. 

Couples therapy: While it may not seem very heroic, it’s important to seek help from professionals to effectively deal with these patterns. Therapy can help you both foster self-awareness for your situation, and move towards healthier relationship dynamics.
Mutual support: Rather than having one person as the dependent and the other as the hero, you should try and establish a mutually supportive atmosphere — where you both feel like you can lean on each other.
Healthy communication: Develop healthier communication patterns that enable you both to talk about your relationship needs, sidestepping the need for one partner to jump in and save the day!
Balance: Move towards a healthier equilibrium in your relationship by establishing a more balanced approach in your relationship. Rather than having one person in control, try and divide tasks and responsibilities, so no one feels the need to either save or be saved!
Joint goal-setting: In the spirit of open communication, try and establish regular relationship check-ins, where you both set goals for your future together. This practice can help deconstruct the towers that the white knight idea forges, naturally creating a more open and inclusive atmosphere.
+50k reviews
Learn more about the future of your relationship!
Download the #1 app for couples to guide you in the process!
our app
petal decoration

Enjoying this article?

A happier relationship starts here.

Question with locked answer