To create our subtypes we reviewed numerous cases of rescuing behavior in intimate relationships. We examined and compared the personality styles, behavior in relationships, and early history. From this review, four basic subtypes of rescuers emerged: the overly empathic white knight, the tarnished white knight, the terrorizing/terrified white knight, and the balanced rescuer. These subtypes are not discrete entities but represent our observation of clusters of characteristics that can overlap. Within these subtypes we have noted certain dominant psychological qualities. But these qualities are not necessarily fixed or permanent. Some white knights, for example, move from one subtype to another as they gain insight and perspective from experiences, situations, or major changes in their lives.


The overly empathic white knight fears emotional distance. This fear can be triggered by many sources, such as separation, loss of love, or loss of approval.
She tries to maintain or restore an emotional connection to her partner by being needed, good, or caregiving and by positively affecting her partner’s emotions. Sexual jealousy and insecurity can trigger her fear of emotional distance. As a result, the overly empathic white knight is driven to further prove that she is a valued partner and lover.

The overly empathic white knight worries excessively about her partner. This worry is especially apparent during separations or when she feels he needs her help or protection, lest he experience some kind of discomfort. One overly empathetic white knight worried that her partner had not planned his work schedule properly and that his poor planning might cause him to experience too much stress. Although she may have been correct in predicting her partner’s stress, when she created a computer spreadsheet for his various tasks to help him better manage his time, he resented her help and felt humiliated. In situations like these, the white knight often feels hurt, if not angry, when her partner rebuffs her offerings, or perceives her help as a criticism or a nuisance.

As with most white knights, the overly empathic white knight may privately take some of the credit for his partner’s success. Yet he may also view his partner’s success with ambivalence. Because this white knight fears emotional distance, he may worry that if his partner is successful, she may no longer need the relationship or want it to continue. The major psychological forces at work within this white knight are a heightened sense of empathy, excessive guilt, and an intense fear of emotional distance. These forces are manifested in a variety of ways.


The tarnished white knight wants to be loved and appreciated. He seeks to compensate for, and repair, the ineffectual sense of self that he developed in childhood. When this white knight was a child, he may have teased or shamed his peers in order to disguise his self-contempt. When he is in a relationship in which he is adored and idealized, the tarnished white knight feels powerful and potent. He behaves in ways that disguise his vulnerability, fear of abandonment, and feelings of shame and inadequacy. Seeing himself as sexually powerful and skillful is extremely important to the tarnished white knight. Glamorizing his partner and eroticizing their relationship enables him to glorify himself. Sometimes this white knight’s need for validation is greater than his partner can provide, which frequently leads him to have affairs outside of his partnership.

The tarnished white knight often chooses partners who have some trait that, by ordinary standards, creates a tangible disparity between herself and her partner. Appearance, health, social, or economic status are common examples of traits that create such disparities. At other times, she has an unrealistic or inflated sense of who her partner is or should be (that is, she exaggerates her partner’s talents).

Whatever the disparity, the tarnished white knight’s main goal in relationships is to be loved and admired, and he will go to great lengths to achieve that admiration in an effort to heal his past. Unfortunately, this kind of healing rarely works, because the tarnished white knight has an emotional hole within himself that cannot contain whatever new love and admiration is given to him, thus leaving him perpetually needy and frustrated.


The terrorizing/terrified white knight is the subtype most likely to have experienced overwhelming fear and shame as a child. This white knight tends to have had a very traumatic early childhood that may have included sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. Such an extremely difficult childhood has left her with limited skills to handle her psychological burden.

The terrorizing/terrified white knight learned to be highly manipulative of her parents, teachers, and peers as an adaptation and reaction to her childhood experiences. She may have been deceitful, a bully, and most likely believed that she was entitled to special treatment—all of which served temporarily to counteract her shame and fear by making her feel, in the moment, powerful and special. The remnants of this unhealthy coping style can be seen in her adult personality. This white knight copes by creating situations where others feel afraid or shamed.

Through various behaviors, the terrorizing/terrified white knight transfers her feelings of emptiness, jealousy, shame, anger, and fear of abandonment to her partner. She may be accusatory, critical, or mocking in an attempt to relieve herself of shame by shaming him. The terrorizing/terrified white knight often uses sex and jealousy to control her partner.


The balanced rescuer is sensitive to the needs of others and practices altruism for its own sake. He gives support freely and is not conflicted about his partner’s success. These are healthy, generous men and women who are respected by others. Having found a partner who carries her own weight, the balanced rescuer will anticipate reciprocity in his relationships. He and his partner are willing to support each other through the good times and bad. He helps when asked, but also offers help freely and graciously, without implying criticism or trying to control. While white knights may feel threatened when things go well for their partners, the balanced rescuer is truly delighted. Although he may quietly take some pride in whatever help he has provided, he goes out of his way to ensure that his partner receives the credit for her successes.


A temporary white knight is someone who has been in high-functioning relationships but with the onset of some unusual stressors, such as the loss of a job or the illness or death of someone close, pursues an unhealthy rescuing relationship. Our use of the term “white knight syndrome” implies a chronic need to be the rescuer in intimate relationships. Temporary white knights do not demonstrate chronic rescuing and, technically, do not fall into our subtypes. However, we have seen a number of people who temporarily rescue in an unhealthy manner, and we illustrate one such case below, although we will not discuss this subtype elsewhere in the book.


Excerpt 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.