Psych Services Cop’s White Knight Syndrome with Distressed Damsels

Lisa Garmezy

Editor’s Note: Dr. Garmezy is on a well-deserved vacation. The Badge & Gun is taking the opportunity to rerun her most popular column to date – about the White Knight Syndrome.

In matters of the heart, caring officers can be drawn to troubled lovers. A number of HPD men and women have played the part of the white knight rescuing the damsel in distress. She’s grateful and beautiful and somewhat exotic – or he is sensitive and passionate – but can the relationship last?


They can last, but “white knight” relationships are more likely to fail than balanced partnerships. The damsels, or suffering serfs, get sick of being rescued; and the officers get sick of doing the rescuing.


Perhaps you are a white knight. Try these quiz questions from The White Knight Syndrome.


  • My partner made me feel idolized in the beginning of our relationship.
  • I am too worried about my partner to leave.
  • Often, I know better than my partner what is best for her.


Or answer these questions, appearing here for the first time in print:


  • My partner needed my help to get out of an abusive relationship.
  • My partner is unemployed and broke.
  • Or, if employed, my partner works seminude.


Basically, the white knight increases his or her self-esteem by relieving the suffering of his partner. The men find themselves attracted to one woman after another who is so messed up or misguided that, as Dylan sang, when wishing on stars, she always prays to headlights.


The Damsel’s Appeal


Both sexes turn into white knights because they need to be needed. Maybe that was the role they played in the family they grew up in, and they felt most loved when someone else was ill or in trouble and they rallied around that person. These rescuers genuinely like to help.


The truth is, when any of us help, we do so in part to feel better about ourselves. And any marriage requires compromise, even sacrifice. Many, many women take care of everyone but themselves. Still, in a healthy relationship, giving is a two-way street.


White knight relationships stay lopsided year after year. The knights who stay are generous and altruistic but that’s not quite all.


Colleagues who get stuck in this pattern tend to take control of lovers who at first are happy to be propped up by someone wise and powerful telling them what to do. Officers want to be strong and supportive, and these folks tell them they’re all of that. Putting it bluntly, these relationships can boost weak self-esteem.


Also, choosing a dependent partner increases the odds that your partner will stick by you, which is a nice hedge for someone afraid of being dumped.


Happily Ever After?


Let’s count the ways this flawed connection can go wrong. First, the damsel can mature into a settled adult who no longer requires protection or supervision, but the cop doesn’t get that. He still sees her as the lost, vulnerable girl he fell in love with.


She can tell he thinks of her as damaged goods and she resents the smothering concern that implies she can’t cope on her own. She may feel her partner blames her for everything because a central underlying theme of their marriage is that he’s smart and sensible and she’s a screw-up.


The relationship could get rocky as the wife tries to be stronger, surer and more independent. Her knight secretly may not want her to succeed, because if she does, she outgrows him. For example, he might discourage her from going back to school.


In a completely different scenario, the damsel may still want rescuing but the poor knight, who’s tired of managing her life on top of his own, just wants to grab a tankard of mead and watch someone else’s tournament. She didn’t outgrow the relationship, he did. She used to be “wrong in all the right ways,” to quote Pink; now she’s just needy and exhausting.


In this case, the woman may sense her champion slipping away. She can respond to his changes and function more independently. They can fight about how she’s too clingy and he isn’t there for her. Or, consciously or unconsciously, she can make a string of mistakes to convince him he’d better stay on-duty.


Post-Rescue Reality


If you see yourself here and you are not yet committed to this folly, proceed with caution. Damsels in distress tend to come with debt, diagnoses and dysfunctional families. Perhaps choosing a partner who doesn’t have a track record of poor decision-making would be a better way to go. (Yes, you may tuck this article into your buddy’s gym bag).

And if it’s you, and you’re already in the middle of it, encourage and recognize your partner’s growth. Too often, we change but our spouse’s image of us, clouded with “you see what you expect to see,” doesn’t keep up.


Work on living in a way that leaves you content with your choices. Earn and accept the respect of folks other than your partner, so that if you guide her less and she reveres you less, you’re still o.k. Knights and damsels and suffering serfs must all move beyond the confining roles of a medieval fantasy.


If ever a topic drew reader response, this one should do it. Send your thoughts to, and thanks for keeping the dragon population in check.