Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Can I Tell if I Have “White Knight Syndrome”?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Sorry for any mistakes; English isn’t my first language. 

I’m a fat, introverted, religious nerd. I was voluntarily celibate until I was 26; I wasn’t having any difficulties living without sex.

Everything had changed when I came across with a lone depressed girl. I couldn’t bear her tears of self-hatred, as she considered herself ugly while she wasn’t, she told she had no right to live if she’s ugly. My feeling of justice protested against that, and I started to reassure her. As we communicated, I learned she was a smart and educated girl, with high morals. One night I found I had a crush on her.

We communicated further, and she showed her respect to me. But I wasn’t her type, and when I proposed relationship, she refused. She was actually strongly attracted to someone else, but the man whom she loved was indifferent to her.

After a cooling off period, I resumed communication, now with purposes of friendship.

(I decided the relationship might be harmful for both of us, so I mustn’t ever dream of it).

We continued talking on various topics, she was pleasant as a friend while her mood was better, and I always tried to cheer her up while she was sad.

But after having read your article about “White Knight Syndrome” I realized I could be such one all this time. Leave her? But I literally feel pain while she suffers. Do I really have this syndrome, and what have I to do, if I want to see her happy and find a girlfriend for my own happiness?

Sir Galahad

DEAR SIR GALAHAD: Before we get into your letter, SG, let’s define some terms for folks. “White Knight syndrome” is a term for people — mostly men — who are drawn to women they feel that they can “save”. These tend to be women in a number of bad situations — poverty, chronic health issues, mental health problems, histories of trauma, abuse or other, similar issues.

These would-be White Knights feel compelled to try to “rescue” women from their distress… often without actually stoping to consider whether women want to be “rescued” or not.

The movie “Love and Other Drugs” is a great example of a man who thinks he can help a woman who’s suffering from a chronic illness, but never stops to actually consider her opinion on the matter or what living with someone with a chronic medical condition actually MEANS.

Here’s the thing about White Knight syndrome, SG: it’s almost always borne out of insecurity and neediness. A lot of folks, especially men with a particular nerdy bent are prone to gravitating towards women they see as fragile, damaged, lonely, weak or otherwise in need of being “saved”. To them, it’s an outward expression of compassion or empathy; they can’t stand seeing someone hurt, abandoned or what-have-you and want to provide them the love and care they need and/or deserve.

In reality though, this almost always comes from a place of a lack of deservedness and a desire for control. While most of the men who do this may well have good intentions, what they also have is a lack of faith in their own self-worth. The reason why they feel so drawn to “saving” women is because they don’t feel that they have anything of value in and of themselves. They want to “save” or “fix” these broken birds because by doing so they’ll “earn” her love and affection by doing so.

(And that’s just the well-intentioned ones; there’re plenty who are drawn to women in these situations because they feel like they’d be easier to control…)

The problem with this is threefold.

First, a relationship based on “rescuing” someone is one that can’t and won’t last. It’s patronizing at best; at worst, it sets up a severely dysfunctional dynamic between the two that all but guarantees an ugly ending. If, for example, the other partner is successfully “fixed” or “saved”, then she no longer “needs” her savior the way she did… at which point, either she’s staying in the relationship strictly out of gratitude or his insecurities will run wild because now he no longer has a reason for her to want to be with him.

Second: It’s deeply objectifying. She’s not a person, so much as a project; a restoration and renovation that you can f

k. Nobody likes feeling like somebody’s project, especially since it implies that the attraction is about her situation, rather than her as a person. And the people who do want to be treated like this… are almost always folks you don’t want to be in relationships with.

Third: Even if the first two didn’t apply — it was a perfect storm of a sincere and altruistic desire for help and a partner who wants to be saved — then the fact of the matter is that those would-be White Knights are never prepared for the reality of the situation. More often than not, they have a romantic and limited idea of what life with that person would be like. Whether it’s somebody with a chronic medical condition, someone with a mental health issue like depression, economic problems or other struggles, the aspiring savior has neither the training nor the experience to actually deal with it. The fantasy of the situation may be compelling, but reality is going to hit them like The Chair Leg of Truth.

Anyone who’s ever been a caregiver for someone with a chronic condition can tell you: it’s exhausting, frustrating and takes a toll that even training doesn’t prepare you for. Caregiver fatigue and CPTSD are very, very real. Similarly, many women who have done forms of sex-work will tell you about “Captain Save-A-Ho”, who thinks that she needs rescuing or who’s very upset to discover that dating him isn’t going to make her decide she no longer wants or needs to do sex work.

Which brings us back to you, SG. I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but it’s also coming from a place of every damn pop song about a guy who feels special because he is the only one who recognizes some random girl as being beautiful when she thinks she isn’t. It’s less about her and more about how special he is because he’s able to bring out the gorgeous side of her… and also gets her in the process.

While I don’t doubt that her sadness tugs at your heartstrings, she doesn’t need you to be her happiness provider. If she’s dealing with depression and suicidal ideation, then she needs a therapist, not a boyfriend. And speaking as someone who’s struggled with his own depression, I can tell you from first hand experience: you can’t love someone out of being depressed.

And frankly, a relationship that’s strictly based on her needing you to pull her out of the Swamp of Sadness is one that’s doomed to failure. A relationship is a partnership between equals, not one person “needing” the other to get through life.

I think the thing that would be healthiest — for her and for you — is for you to start letting this one go. If you want to date, then I suggest developing the things that make you someone that women would want to date, not someone that they would date out of a sense of obligation.

Good luck.

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