The White Knight Syndrome: Understanding and Overcoming It

What’s Wrong With White Knight Syndrome?

A lot of you will likely be wondering why White Knight syndrome should be such a negative issue. After all, what’s wrong with wanting to help women or treating them chivalrously? Wouldn’t women appreciate a guy who treats them with respect, one who has a sense of empathy and compassion? A guy who wants nothing but the best for them? Sure he may be a little old-fashioned, but is there really anything wrong with that?

Well that depends.  How do you think women would feel about a guy whose idea of a healthy relationship involves inducing women to feel a sense of obligation to them? For that matter, how do you think a woman would feel about a man who – as with Geek Girls – fetishizes her and her condition, rather than seeing her as a real person?

When you actually stop to think about it, The White Knight’s behavior is actually surprisingly misogynistic. It’s certainly not his intention; in fact, many White Knights would insist that they see women as being superior beings, so they couldn’t possibly be misogynists. And yet for all of their protesting, the White Knight’s behavior and actions are paternalistic in the extreme.

By trying to come to her “rescue”, the White Knight is essentially denying that women have agency of their own and have to wait for someone else – the self-declared hero, in this case – to come to her “rescue” and “save” her from all of her troubles.

Similarly, the “chivalrous” code that White Knights frequently adopt is one with very firm roles; the man as the active partner and the woman as the passive one. After all, if the woman had a more active role, she might not need him in the first place. And if she didn’t “need” him, what other reason could she possibly want to keep him around? Of course, therein lies the paradox of the White Knight’s relationship with the object of his affection; despite the “need” of the woman, the

White Knight is incredibly needy himself. He needs frequent reassurance from his partner that no, she really does love him, everything’s alright, she appreciates him, etc. etc. More than anything else, the White Knight fears losing her approval – or worse, being abandoned.

For all of the White Knight’s supposed altruism, ultimately the story is all about him.

Much like someone with Munchausen by Proxy, the White Knight enjoys the “special”ness that comes with being the caretaker and champion of an afflicted young woman. The woman is essentially a prop in his own story; she’s not a woman so much as a prize.

White Knights are frequently manipulative or even controlling, in the guise of “for her own good”; once again, he needs to maintain his position as champion, caregiver, defender and aide, lest he not only lose the role of “hero” and the sympathy and admiration that comes with it, but the reason for him to be there in the first place. It’s worth noting that White Knights aren’t actively abusive, just passive aggressive and clingy to the point of being almost smothering.

Of course, for all of his championing of the ill girl or emotionally troubled, real life inevitably sets in. As appealing as the fantasy is, the reality is that helping someone with emotional or physical trauma or addiction issues is never easy, simple, pretty or terribly glamorous. It’s messy, it’s ugly and it’s complicated. It means dealing with setbacks – not ones that are suitably-dramatic-but-easily-overcome, but ones that can undo years of work and struggle and devastate people emotionally. A White Knight rarely understands – truly understands – that chronic conditions are often permanent, and being the partner of someone with one means that these entail a lifetime of dealing with them.

When that realization finally sinks in, the addictive rush and thrill of the fantasy start to pale and the reality begins to assert itself. The White Knight then finds himself faced with a choice: abandon the fantasy and deal with the woman as she really is or make up an excuse and eject himself from the relationship, only to repeat the process again with another suitably “broken bird”.


The Hidden Dangers of White Knight Syndrome

 weary knight sitting

Interestingly enough, men with White Knight syndrome actually put themselves at risk for abusive or exploitative relationships. Because of their idealized view of women – and their partners in particular – they’re almost pathetically easy marks.

There are women out there who will look to take advantage of a man, and a White Knight makes for excellent prey. Being drawn to women in “trouble”, they’re suckers for false drama and tales of woe. Their need to “rescue” a woman often overrides their common sense and the idealization of their partner means that they’ll sublimate any sense of suspicion. Their need for acceptance and tendency to be conflict averse means that even if they do raise any objections or suspicions, they’ll back down right away rather than risk a confrontation. A skilled predator will manipulate the White Knight into fulfilling her needs, whether it’s for money, resources or connections… and worse, convince him that it’s his idea in the first place.

Even if they don’t end up as the victim of a con or a thief, White Knights are especially vulnerable to emotionally abusive relationships. The initial thrill wears off and leaves them stuck in a relationship with emotional vampire, who drains the life out of him as he struggles to try to meet her needs. Her fears and constant need for reassurance can be alluring at first; after all, the White Knight loves to be needed and being able to assuage her fears will make him feel strong.

Over time, however, that need becomes increasingly unreasonable and unmanageable; she goes from needing reassurance to requiring his presence at all hours. He will find himself making excuses for her to his friends; after all, it’s hardly her fault that she’s like this, she’s the victim of horrible circumstance and it’s his duty to help her… even as he slowly comes to realize he’s not allowed to have a life of his own.

Harris O’Malley
Harris O' Malley is a dating coach who provides geek dating advice at Paging Dr. NerdLove, as well as on Kotaku  and elsewhere. He and his work has been featured on Nightline, Vice, The Guardian, New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, Wired, Sex Nerd Sandra, Daily Life, Slate, The Austin-American Statesman, Austin Monthly, Geek and Sundry, Boing Boing, Everyday Feminism, Buzzfeed, The Daily Dot, The Washington Post, Kotaku, Lifehacker,, The Good Man Project, MTV’s Guy Code, The Harvard Business Journal, and many others. Paging Dr. NerdLove has been featured as one of the top 10 dating blogs on
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