White knight syndrome: The dangers of emotional dependency
Every woman dreams of a white knight, but being the damsel in distress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When one partner depends too much on the other, it can spell disaster. Read on for how to avoid emotional dependency in a relationship.
What is white knight syndrome?
Being by each other's side through good times and the bad is natural when you're a couple. A healthy relationship means loving and supporting one another unconditionally. It's about cancelling an important dinner date to stay at home and look after him when he has the flu, or him doing all the housework when you've got a big project on at work. Helping each other out every now and again is what you want in a relationship.
However, this situation could evolve and one of you might start playing the knight in shining armour all the time. This is what we call “white knight syndrome”. As psychoanalyst Mary C. Lamia explains in her book on the subject: “The white knight’s sole mission is to rescue the other person. He devotes himself completely to making up for his partner’s (supposed) failings or to cheering the other person up, helping out with financial troubles, problems at work and health concerns.” For this to work, the white knight will choose a vulnerable partner and take care to define the relationship in terms of “rescuer” and “rescued”, albeit unconsciously. But who are these white knights, and why do they adopt this role in a relationship?
Too in love
“The white knight worries about his partner all the time,” explains psychologist Marilyn J. Krieger, co-author of The White Knight Syndrome. “Will she be ok in her new job? Will he be able to manage with all this family stuff going on? Believing that the other person would be lost without their advice and intervention, white knights jump straight in and start to sort things out without even asking about these problems in the first place.
Let’s take Julie as an example. Not known for her organisational skills, Julie often finds herself overloaded with things to do and ends up constantly stressed out as a result. Before she knows it, her white knight has created a chart organising all her tasks for the week, without stopping to ask her what she actually needs. If she rejects this and feels uncomfortable about his interference, it could cause serious problems in her relationship – all the more so when he's expecting gratitude...
According to psychoanalyst Mary C. Lamia: “The white knight is often too empathetic and tries to steer the needs of his partner without asking first.” It might be a nice surprise or a present, but the other person won’t feel good about being in the white knight’s debt. What the “rescued” partner doesn’t realise is that the white knight is just showing the affection and love he missed out on in childhood.
The control freak
“This white knight actively seeks out partners who have problems in their lives,” psychologist Marilyn J. Krieger tells us. When he meets someone, it is usually when that person is in a vulnerable position. It could be due to illness or being made redundant, for example. The white knight will very quickly try to make him or herself indispensable and try to earn the admiration of their “target”.
The problem arises when vulnerable partner gets back on his or her feet again and the white knight starts to feel useless. Due to these feelings, the white knight may try to put the other person back in a vulnerable position again with constant put-downs. This way, he can continue to play the role of the rescuer.
Psychoanalyst Mary C. Lamia says: “By coming to the rescue of his partner, this kind of white knight is taking control. But for this kind of relationship to work, both partners must know their places.” What he is actually doing is deflecting from personal feelings of vulnerability. Such white knights only ever choose partners who are weaker.
Why do white knights behave like they do?
A white knight’s self esteem depends largely on recognition from others and his role as rescuer. The problem is that the only way he can feel good is by keeping his partner down. “The white knight bases his sense of worth on helping a more vulnerable person and being responsible for his other half’s health and happiness, which can become a compulsion,” the psychoanalyst explains.
A relationship like this will only ever be dysfunctional – even more so when the white knight is unconsciously craving admiration, constant approval and love in return for his good deeds. “In defeating the dragon which has his partner in its clutches (or so he thinks), he is actually wrestling with his own demons,” psychologist Marilyn J. Krieger adds. Ultimately, all he is doing is imprisoning himself in his own armour.
How to cure white knight syndrome
The best thing to do to escape emotional dependency in a relationship is to focus on the relationship you have with yourself:
1. Understand that a desire to constantly save your partner is a reflection of your own need to feel powerful and project your negative feelings of failure, vulnerability or sadness onto the other person.
2. Look at what you are projecting onto your partner. By concentrating on these faults, and putting the other person down for your own ends, you are probably trying to mask anxiety about your own failings.
3. Whether you just find your other half’s behaviour perplexing, or sorting another person's problems out makes you feel important, remember that your perception of yourself should not rely so heavily on the other person’s identity and attitudes.
- Escaping the vicious circle of relationship failure
- Saying I love you
- Battle of the sexes: how equal is equal?
- The cougar: When women fall for younger men
- Do your genes determine who you date?
- Say no to rudeness!
- Stop mothering him!
- How to recognise a narcissistic manipulator
- Discover your philosophy on love
Get more on this subject…