White Knight Syndrome (Causes + Examples)

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology

Picture this: You're watching a romantic movie where the hero swoops in to "rescue" the person they love. The hero fixes all their problems, and they live happily ever after. It seems dreamy, right?

But what if I told you that always wanting to be the "hero" in a relationship could actually make things complicated?

White Knight Syndrome is an urge to constantly save someone. It's like you're putting on shining armor, hoping to fix someone else's life, even if they didn't ask you to.

Understanding White Knight Syndrome is really important if you want a healthy relationship. Being the "savior" all the time isn't as great as it sounds. It can cause stress, create imbalance, and sometimes, even break up relationships.

In this article, we'll dive deep into what White Knight Syndrome is, how it shows up, and what it means for relationships. We'll even look at real-world examples, learn about the people who studied it, and explore ways to deal with it if you think it's affecting you or someone you know.

What is White Knight Syndrome?

illustration of a knight

Have you ever felt the urge to step in and solve someone else's problems, even when they didn't ask for your help?

If so, you might be experiencing something called White Knight Syndrome. This is a term used to describe people who feel a strong pull to rescue others, often putting on their metaphorical shining armor to "save the day."

But being a White Knight isn't just about helping; it's about needing to be the helper, to the point where your own identity becomes wrapped up in it.

You may be wondering, "What's wrong with wanting to help people?" Well, there's a difference between helping when asked and feeling like you have to help in order to feel good about yourself.

People with White Knight Syndrome often feel like they must jump in and "fix" things, even if the other person would rather handle their issues in their own way.

This can make relationships really tricky. One person may feel overwhelmed by the constant "help," while the White Knight may feel unappreciated or even neglected if they aren't allowed to rescue their partner.

Common traits of White Knight Syndrome include an intense need to be needed, a strong sense of duty or responsibility, and often, a fear of rejection or abandonment. Sometimes, people with White Knight Syndrome may also feel like they have to earn love by being the "savior," and they may struggle with self-worth issues.

So, when does White Knight Syndrome show up? It can appear in all sorts of relationships: romantic relationships, friendships, and even family dynamics.

Imagine a teenager who constantly helps their friends with homework, but then feels hurt when they want to tackle a project on their own. Or think about a parent who always steps in to solve their child's problems, making the child feel like they can't do anything themselves.

In essence, White Knight Syndrome is more than just the desire to help; it's the need to be the one who makes everything better, even when it's not asked for or needed.

While it might seem like a noble quality, it can lead to problems that make relationships a lot more complicated than they need to be.

History of White Knight Syndrome

Getting to the root of any issue often means going back in time to see where it all began. The history of White Knight Syndrome is filled with interesting turns and twists that have led us to our current understanding.

This journey is not just about knowing where the term originated but also about acknowledging the thinkers, psychologists, and researchers who've contributed to this field.

Origins of the Term

The term "White Knight Syndrome" may not be ancient, but the concept has roots that dig deep into our collective human history.

The imagery of a knight in shining armor rescuing a damsel in distress can be traced back to medieval literature and folklore. Characters like King Arthur and Sir Lancelot are classic examples of what might be called "white knights" in today's language.

This idea was then carried forward into modern times, appearing frequently in books, movies, and TV shows.

But beyond storytelling, the urge to "rescue" has been examined in philosophy and psychology as an aspect of human nature, focusing on why some people feel an almost irresistible urge to "save" others.

Pioneers in the Field

While it's not entirely clear who first coined the term "White Knight Syndrome," the field owes a lot to a number of psychologists and researchers.

Dr. Mary Lamia: One of the prominent names here is Dr. Mary Lamia. She has not only identified but also classified the different traits and characteristics that make up this syndrome. Her work has been instrumental in outlining both the positive and negative effects that come with being a "White Knight."

Dr. Shawn Burn: Another key figure is Dr. Shawn Burn, who has written extensively on relationship dynamics and how the White Knight Syndrome plays into these. Dr. Burn's work often delves into the motivations behind these "rescuing" behaviors and the cycles of dependency they can create.

Additional Researchers: Over the years, many psychologists have examined related concepts like co-dependency, which often goes hand in hand with White Knight Syndrome. Researchers like Melody Beattie have also contributed significantly to the discourse, broadening our understanding of the psychological factors at play.

Evolution of the Concept

As research continues to grow, our understanding of White Knight Syndrome has also evolved. In the early stages, it was often viewed as simply a personality trait—sometimes positive because of its focus on helping others. But as the years have passed, experts have begun to see it as more complicated.

Complexity: Now, it's understood that this syndrome can be a double-edged sword. While it can sometimes lead to genuinely positive outcomes, more often it results in an unhealthy imbalance in relationships.

Treatment Approaches: Therapists and counselors have started recognizing the necessity of treating White Knight Syndrome as they would other relationship-related issues. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques are among the strategies now employed to help individuals recognize and manage their "knightly" tendencies.

Public Awareness: With more people sharing their personal stories and experts disseminating their research findings, awareness of the syndrome has grown, making it easier for people to identify and seek help for these behaviors.

Why Do People Have White Knight Syndrome?


Have you ever been so curious about why someone acts a certain way that you can't stop thinking about it? Well, if you've been puzzled about why some people always want to rush in and save the day, you're not alone.

There are actually quite a few reasons why this happens, and we're going to talk about them right now.

Wanting to Feel Special and Important

One big reason is that some people really, really want to feel special and important. They want to feel like they're the hero in a story.

Imagine when you were a little kid and you did something good, like helping your mom with groceries. If everyone made a big deal out of it and said, "Wow, you're such a great helper!" you might start to think that helping people is the best way to get attention and love.

Being Scared of Ending Up Alone

Another thing that's often going on in the mind of a White Knight is fear.

Yeah, you heard it right—fear. They're scared that if they're not always helping or saving someone, that person might leave them. So what do they do? They try to make themselves super useful.

It's like they're saying, "See how much I'm helping you? You wouldn't want to lose someone as helpful as me, right?"

Getting Too Wrapped Up in Each Other

You know how some best friends or couples are so close that they seem to do everything together? Sometimes that closeness can go a bit too far. This is called codependency. It's like a dance where one person leads and the other follows.

In the case of White Knight Syndrome, one person—the White Knight—always wants to lead by helping, and the other person starts to feel like they can't do things on their own anymore.

It's Not Just the White Knight Who Feels It

You might think that being saved all the time would feel great. But guess what? It often doesn't. The person being "saved" might start to feel like they can't do anything right on their own. They might even feel guilty for not being thankful enough. So, it's a situation that doesn't really make anyone truly happy in the long run.

Why Knowing All This Matters

Understanding all these reasons is the first step to making things better. When you know why someone is acting like a White Knight, it can help you talk about it and maybe find a healthier way to be close to each other.

White Knight Syndrome Signs and Symptoms

So, how can you tell if you or someone you know has White Knight Syndrome? Well, there are some clues you can look for. Let's get into them!

Always Wanting to Help, Even When It's Not Needed

One of the first things you might notice is that the person always wants to help. And I mean always. Even when no one asked for help or really needs it. It's like they're on a mission to be the hero, whether the situation calls for one or not.

Feeling Unhappy When Not the Center of Attention

White Knights like to feel important, right? So, if they're not the one doing the helping or solving the problem, they might start to feel unhappy or even get a bit grumpy. They might feel left out and think that they're not valued.

Giving Advice All the Time

Another sign is that they're always giving advice, even if you didn't ask for it. They'll jump into conversations and say things like, "You know what you should do?" It might feel like they're trying to fix your life for you, even if you don't think your life needs fixing!

They're Really, Really Busy

White Knights often fill their lives with tasks and people who they think need their help. So, they're usually super busy. If you ask them how they're doing, they might say, "I have so much going on, so many people to help!"

They Get Upset If You Don't Take Their Help

This is a big one. If you say, "Thanks, but I can handle it," they might get upset or even angry. That's because, in their mind, helping you isn't just about you—it's also about them feeling important and useful.

Relationships Seem a Bit Off

Lastly, if you look at their relationships, something might seem a little off. They might always be the one helping, and the other person might not get much of a chance to help back. Or the other person might start to seem less confident because they're always being "rescued."

Why Spotting the Signs is So Important

Knowing these signs can be super helpful. If you see them in yourself, it might be a chance to think about why you act this way and how it's affecting your relationships. If you see them in someone else, it can help you understand what's going on and maybe find a better way to relate to them.

White Knight Syndrome vs. Other Behavior

White Knight Syndrome doesn't exist in isolation. It often overlaps with other behavioral and psychological patterns, making it part of a more complex web. Let's break down how it relates to other terms you might have heard, like narcissism and manipulation.

Narcissism and White Knight Syndrome

At first glance, you might think a White Knight is the opposite of a narcissist. After all, narcissists are often self-centered, while White Knights seem to focus on others. But dig a little deeper, and you'll see similarities.

Both can seek attention and validation from others to feel good about themselves. For the narcissist, it might be admiration they're after. For the White Knight, it's often gratitude or dependency.

Manipulation Tactics

White Knight Syndrome can sometimes involve manipulation, even if it's not intentional. By continuously jumping in to "rescue" someone, the White Knight can make the other person feel obligated to them or emotionally dependent.

This could be seen as a form of manipulation because it restricts the other person's freedom to make choices without feeling guilty or ungrateful.

Connection to Codependency

We talked about codependency earlier, but it's worth mentioning again here. White Knight Syndrome can be a stepping stone to a codependent relationship.

In such relationships, both parties become emotionally dependent on each other for different reasons. The White Knight needs to feel needed, while the other person needs the emotional or practical support the White Knight offers.

Savior Complex and Martyr Syndrome

White Knight Syndrome is often linked to what's called the "Savior Complex" or "Martyr Syndrome." People with these tendencies often put others' needs ahead of their own to an extreme extent, sacrificing their well-being in the process.

Like White Knights, they may find it difficult to set healthy boundaries, leading to emotional exhaustion and resentment over time.

Emotional Intelligence

Understanding and managing White Knight Syndrome may require developing higher emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions while also being sensitive to the emotions of others.

By improving this skill, both the White Knight and the person they're "rescuing" can better navigate their emotional needs and boundaries.

How Does White Knight Syndrome Impact Relationships?

happy couple

White Knight Syndrome doesn't just exist in a vacuum; it has profound effects on relationships. It's like dropping a stone in a pond—the ripples extend far and wide. Let's dig deep into how this behavior can change the dynamics between people.

Emotional Imbalance

In any healthy relationship, there should be a sense of emotional balance, a give-and-take that allows both individuals to be both givers and receivers of support. However, White Knight Syndrome often disrupts this balance.

The White Knight assumes the role of constant giver, making the relationship one-sided. This imbalance can lead to emotional exhaustion for the White Knight and feelings of inadequacy for the other person.

Loss of Autonomy

The person on the receiving end of the White Knight's help often experiences a loss of autonomy. Autonomy is a fancy word for being able to make your own choices and live your life the way you want to.

When someone is always swooping in to "save" you, it can make you second-guess your decisions and abilities. Over time, this can chip away at your self-confidence.

Reinforcement of Negative Self-Image

Ironically, the White Knight's constant need to rescue can reinforce a negative self-image in the person they're trying to help. If someone is always there to fix your problems, it's easy to start thinking you can't do anything right on your own. This can be especially harmful in relationships where one person already struggles with self-esteem or self-worth issues.

Emotional Dependence and Codependency

We touched on codependency earlier, but it's worth mentioning again in the context of its impact on relationships.

Emotional dependence can develop in both parties. The White Knight becomes dependent on the feeling of being needed, while the other person becomes dependent on the feeling of being cared for.

This cycle of dependency can make it difficult for either person to leave the relationship, even if they know it's unhealthy.

Resentment and Passive-Aggression

When emotional needs are not being met in a balanced way, resentment can build up on both sides. The White Knight may start to feel unappreciated or taken advantage of. The person being helped may feel smothered and controlled.

This can lead to passive-aggressive behavior, where both parties express their dissatisfaction in indirect ways, further complicating the relationship.

Impact on Family Dynamics

White Knight Syndrome can also affect family relationships. For example, a parent with this syndrome may focus excessively on helping one child, leading to jealousy and strained relationships among siblings.

Similarly, if one spouse becomes the perpetual rescuer, it can skew the family dynamic and model unhealthy behavior for children.

The Long-Term Consequences

Over the long term, relationships impacted by White Knight Syndrome often face serious challenges, including the risk of breakup. The built-in imbalances and emotional strains can make it difficult to sustain a healthy, mutually respectful relationship.

Moreover, the syndrome can perpetuate a cycle of dysfunction that extends into new relationships unless addressed.

How to Treat White Knight Syndrome

So, you've recognized the signs and understood the impacts—now what? Don't worry, there are ways to manage White Knight Syndrome and make relationships healthier. Here's how.

1) Self-Awareness is Key

The first step is recognizing the behavior in yourself or someone else. Being aware is like turning on a light in a dark room. Now you can see what you're dealing with!

2) Open and Honest Communication

If you see signs of White Knight Syndrome in your relationship, it's crucial to talk about it openly. Remember, no one is a mind-reader. You have to share your feelings and concerns, and encourage the other person to do the same.

3) Set Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries are like invisible lines that help people understand what's okay and what's not. Both parties need to agree on these boundaries.

For example, it's not okay for the White Knight to jump in and try to solve problems without being asked. Setting boundaries helps everyone know what to expect.

4) Seek Professional Help

Sometimes, the issues are too big to tackle on your own. That's okay. Therapists and counselors are trained to help people understand their behavior and make healthier choices. They can provide tools and strategies that you might not have thought of.

5) Work on Self-Improvement

If you're the one with White Knight tendencies, try focusing on improving yourself instead of "rescuing" others.

Pick up a new hobby, learn a new skill, or tackle a personal challenge. This can shift your focus and give you a sense of achievement that doesn't rely on being someone else's hero.

6) Encourage Independence

If you're on the receiving end of a White Knight's actions, work on your independence. Show that you can handle things on your own and make your own choices. This is good for your self-esteem and also helps the White Knight see that constant rescuing isn't necessary.

7) Monitor Progress and Adjust

Change doesn't happen overnight. Both parties should keep an eye on how things are going and be willing to adjust their behavior as needed. If old habits start creeping back in, it's time for another honest chat.

8) Celebrate Small Wins

Any step towards a healthier relationship is a win and should be celebrated. Did the White Knight resist the urge to jump in and "save the day" when it wasn't needed? That's progress!

Acknowledging these small victories can motivate everyone to keep working on improvement.


White Knight Syndrome is more than just wanting to help people. It's a complex pattern of behavior that can have a big impact on relationships and the emotional well-being of everyone involved.

But the good news is, it's not a life sentence. Recognizing the signs is the first big step to making things better. Once you know what you're dealing with, you can have open conversations, set healthy boundaries, and even seek professional help if needed.

What's really amazing is that both parties—both the White Knight and the person they're trying to rescue—can grow from this experience. The White Knight can learn to find value in themselves without needing to be someone's hero all the time. And the other person can learn to stand on their own two feet, making choices that are right for them.

Change is never easy, but it's always possible. And the payoff—a healthier, happier relationship—is definitely worth the effort.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, September). White Knight Syndrome (Causes + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/white-knight-syndrome/.

About The Author

Photo of author