White knights have a compulsive need to rescue, but how and why they rescue can be quite varied. The following is an overview of the basic characteristics common to all white knights. There are also four subtypes: the overly empathetic white knight, the tarnished white knight, the terrorizing/ terrified white knight, and the balanced rescuer.


White knights treat their partners altruistically, but their altruistic endeavors often represent a struggle with their own internal conflicts, as well as a way of staying close to their partners. Does this mean that the white knight’s rescuing behavior is not truly altruistic? This complex question will be addressed later in the book. For now, we will focus on the white knight’s conscious helping behavior and consider it as altruistic.

White knights often have a history of loss, abandonment, trauma, or unrequited love. Many of them were deeply affected by the emotional or physical suffering of a caregiver. In our work with white knights we’ve found them to be emotionally sensitive and vulnerable, traits that cause them to be hurt easily by others.

Empathy, the ability to understand and identify with the feelings of another, is a highly developed character trait of all white knights. The white knight’s ability to put herself into another person’s shoes can be used either to help or, unfortunately, to control or hurt her partner. We discuss empathy in more detail in later chapters.

After carefully reviewing the cases that met our definition of a white knight, we created a list of traits and behaviors that characterize the white knight. Typically, white knights have a history that includes many of the following:

· Self-defeating behavior that may involve substance abuse
· Heightened awareness in childhood of a parent’s hardships
· Childhood neglect
· Childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
· Loss or threat of loss of a significant caregiver in childhood
· Repeatedly finding partners who need rescuing

A white knight typically has many of the following character traits:

· Fears emotional distance
· Is very emotionally vulnerable and sensitive
· Has a tendency to idealize the partner
· Has an extreme need to be viewed as important or unique
· Tends to be self-critical or reactively blames, devalues, and manipulates others

In relationships, a white knight tends to show many of the following behaviors:

· Is attracted to a needy partner or a partner with a history of trauma, loss, abuse, or addiction
· Fears being separated from the partner, losing the partner’s love or approval, or being abandoned by the partner
· Engages in controlling behavior, often under the guise of helping
· Maintains or restores connection with the partner by being extremely helpful or good
· Responds ambivalently to the partner’s success
· Describes a sense of “oneness” with the partner
· Fails to recognize the partner’s manipulative behaviors
· Is seduced by the sexual or dramatic behavior of the partner
· Evokes strong feelings in the partner in order to avoid his or her own emotional discomfort
· Maintains hope for a gratifying relationship by denying the reality of the partner’s issues

Adapted from THE WHITE KNIGHT SYNDROME: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others

Author's Bio: 

Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Marin County, CA. She is also a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA.

Marilyn J. Krieger, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Marin County, CA. She was previously on the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco Medical School.