Are you a knight in need?

If you’re always the rescuer in your relationships, perhaps you suffer from the White Knight Syndrome

Man carrying a woman

In over two decades of practising as a relationship counsellor, I have seen several unhealthy relationship dynamics. My task while counselling such couples is to help them gain insight into their own contaminating attitudes and behaviours. Such stimuli don’t just stunt the growth of the relationship but also that of the partners. One such unhealthy stimulus is that of the ‘needy rescuer’.

The ‘needy rescuers/helpers’ engage in saving someone with an eye on getting fulfilment of a specific ‘need’ in return— here, ‘need’ means a compulsion rooted in deep-seated beliefs about oneself. This is also known as the White Knight Syndrome.

While the ‘needy rescuer’ appears to help a person, it creates dependency and disempowerment in the one who is helped. The ‘needy rescuer’ never teaches a hungry man to fish so that he can feed himself for life. Instead, gives him a fish every day so that he keeps returning to the rescuer for help. And this fulfils the rescuer’s need. It’s an unhealthy co-dependent relationship between the two.

What the ‘needy rescuer’ often needs is admiration, approval or acceptance.

The admiration addiction

Needy helpers often keep thinking for the person [who could be their partner or anyone else], expecting the other to feel admiration for them in return. This leads the other to stop thinking for herself, stunting her growth. Such helpers have an inflated sense of self, much like David.

David grew up believing he was demi-God perfect. His mother helped him keep up the image by playing the victim of a bad marriage. Together they had created a ‘mutual admiration society’ with her praising him for helping her cope with the bad marriage by being the good son, and him praising her for being brave and being the ‘good mom’. Somehow, this continued in his other relationships as well where he ended up marrying a girl who had a difficult and combative relationship with her parents.

He established a parent-child dynamic with her [I am OK, you’re NOT OK]. His unspoken agreement was ‘I help you and you admire/worship me’. She gave him this God-like position in her life and remained in her regressive child state. This continued till he took on a similar role with other women who needed his help to satiate his endless hunger for admiration. The state of equilibrium in his marriage tipped when he engaged in physical intimacy with one of these helpless women, who admired him. When his wife accused him of ‘immorality’ and ‘infidelity’, he justified it saying that he was helping a ‘damsel in distress’ through a trying time in her marriage. To him his higher values of ‘compassion’ were beyond the ‘lower’ ‘contractual’ social norms of monogamy.

They reached an impasse and came in for couple’s therapy. However, David’s inflated sense of self did not allow him to accept constructive feedback about his fallibility. He was reluctant to subject himself to the light-shedding process of counselling because of the same flawed belief. His body language suggested, ‘I am perfect therefore I cannot be wrong, My actions are flawless, I help others and do not need help, I am therefore undoubtedly deserving of endless admiration for all that I am and all that I do’.

When David’s wife refused to admire and worship him any more, it triggered a series of panic attacks in him, as not being viewed as ‘perfect’ and losing the ‘respect’ and ‘admiration’ of all was akin to death for him. He was put on anti-anxiety medication. A non-threatening therapeutic environment was created to help him gently join the dots to identify the roots of his ‘admiration addiction’, which had made him the ‘needy helper’.

The approval addiction

Needy helpers that crave approval push their partners to give exclusive significance and importance to them. This excessive control comes out of insecurity and inadequacy feelings in the ‘White Knights’ and it takes away the free will of their partners, thus disempowering them. Such Knights have a deflated sense of self like Vanisha, who grew up believing she was just ‘not good enough’ because of her mother’s preference for her brother.

Vanisha’s father was an alcoholic who couldn’t save her from his wife’s discrimination. Vanisha felt insignificant, unloved and disapproved of, not just because of the gender bias, but also because she spoke her mind and questioned many of her mother’s behaviours, which did not go down well with her mother.

She felt powerless and helpless. Her feelings of inadequacy turned her into an approval addict to feel ‘good enough’. She married a man who was smitten by her and who made her feel like a queen. However, he was from a lower economic strata, was less educated than her and engaged in binge drinking.

She established a child-parent dynamic with him [I’m NOT OK, you’re OK] and took on the role of his rescuer. Her unspoken agreement with him was, ‘You give me approval and significance and I will motivate you to be your best’. She pushed him to do an MBA, get a better job and join a support group to give up drinking. He continued to adore and indulge her. One day she observed him relating freely with his female colleagues, which revived the old feelings of inadequacy in her and she threw a jealous fit of rage. The hurt, anxious and jealous child in her accused him of being unloving and uncaring and denying her affection. She hurt him by saying he was successful only because of her.

He limited his socialising and gave her undivided attention at all times, but was depressed and withdrawn at home. When they came in for counselling, she was feeling unloved and he, controlled. Vanisha was helped to identify the roots of her belief, ‘I must get endless and undivided love, attention, approval from significant others. If I don’t, it means I’m not good enough’ and she clearly saw it responsible for her ‘approval addiction’ that made her the ‘needy controlling motivator’. She was then helped to heal the ‘inner child’ and grow in self-love. She was helped to extend herself in love without being controlling, which helped her change from being a ‘needy controlling motivator’ to a ‘loving supporter’ of his endeavours.

The acceptance addiction

Needy givers with an acceptance addiction feel compelled to seek co-dependent relationships with broken persons. They feel that they themselves are ‘damaged goods’ and can never be accepted by a whole person. So, they hold on to their partners even if treated like trash. They have no sense of self and no self-worth.

Rita grew up with guilt, shame and fear. She was into an incestuous relationship with her older brother for several years and blamed herself for not protesting strongly enough against it. She felt guilty for enjoying the physical stimulation.

Her father was a schizophrenic and her parents had an abusive marriage, which was known among family and friends. This led to strong feelings of shame in her. Her mother would often disappear from home threatening to leave the marriage. This lead to feelings of physical and psychological survival being threatened. So she drank heavily to numb her feelings. She dated a drug addict, who beat her up black and blue. She stuck with him only because he accepted her as his mate. The relationship ended when fed up, she asked him to choose between drugs or her, and he chose the drugs. Her friends pulled her out of the sado-masochistic relationship, and she was devastated and depressed for a year. She later married a man with extremely low self-esteem. He was adopted and ill-treated by his adopted parents and had frequent rage attacks followed by panic attacks and there was virtually no physical intimacy between them. She firmly believed that since she was ‘damaged goods’, only another ‘broken person’ could accept her. She established a child-child dynamic with him [I’m NOT OK, you’re NOT OK] and proceeded to take on the role of giver/accommodator/masochist in the relationship. Her unspoken agreement with him was, ‘You accept me and I will endlessly give and accommodate you’.

They came into counselling after one of his rage attacks when he threatened to jump out of a hotel window because she gently broached the subject of sexual intimacy. She was willing to be in a loveless, sexless marriage and even accommodate his rage attacks as long as he did not threaten to abandon her. Rita was helped to trace the roots of her fear and guilt stemming from her belief, ‘To survive, someone must accept me. Since I am no one, anyone can do. I will die if someone doesn’t accept me’. She clearly saw this as responsible for her ‘acceptance addiction’ and went through a painstaking therapeutic process to create a sense of self and a new way of viewing herself, ‘I am worthy even if no one accepts me; it is nice to have someone who cares for me in my life but even if I don’t, I will survive’.

Healthy interdependence

All the White Knights in the above cases had to be helped to unlearn their old scripts that were created in their childhood and rewrite new ones to relate in healthy ways.

The only healthy relating is that of an adult-adult [I’m OK, you’re OK], in which both are in a mutually fulfilling, respectful, reciprocal and inter-dependent relationship. It’s relationship in which both stretch themselves to give reasonable help without inner compulsions or neediness, and where both support and encourage personal growth and empowerment in oneself and the other.

This was first published in the July 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Minnu Bhonsle
Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.

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