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Rescuing Behavior Can Be Part Of Many Healthy Relationships

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Healthy relationships

Rescuing Behavior Can Be Part Of Many Healthy Relationships

White Knights Can Have Healthy Relationships Too

The balanced rescuer is sensitive to the needs of those around her and practices altruism for its own sake. She gives support freely and is often well-respected by others. Having found a partner who carries his own weight, the balanced rescuer anticipates reciprocity in her relationships and she and her partner support each other through the good times and bad. She helps when asked, but also offers help freely and graciously, without implying criticism or trying to control. While white knights may feel threatened when things go well for their partners, the balanced rescuer is truly delighted. Although she may quietly take some pride in whatever help she provided, she wants her partner to receive the credit for his successes. The following case, a composite of many individuals, illustrates some of the ways balanced rescuers support and create loving, healthy relationships, even during the inevitable.

Greg, a forty-three-year-old hospital administrator, came for a consultation with Linda, his wife of twelve years. Both Greg and Linda, but especially Greg, sought guidance in dealing with their children around the issue of Linda’s upcoming uterine cancer treatment.
When Greg was six-years old, his mother had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Since the most innovative treatment was available only in a city four hours away from the family’s dairy business and home, his mother had moved to the city for her year-long treatment. Frightened by how sick his mother had looked at their first visit, Greg had not wanted to return. But his father had insisted, reminding him of how sad she would be if Greg didn’t visit.

Greg’s mother had a positive fighting spirit, and upon completing her treatment, resumed her life at home. During Greg’s teenage years, his father turned to alcohol, often musing about “unfulfilled dreams” and falling asleep in front of the television set. Greg’s mother wisely invested the dairy’s meager profits, which put both of her children through college.

Shortly after Greg completed his degree in public health, his father died. Greg reacted to his father’s death by becoming a problem drinker. When he received a driving under the influence citation, he quit drinking and focused on his career. He met Linda, who had a good job, friends, and savings and impressed him as being strong, capable and having good values. He felt Linda added both fun and stability to his life and appreciated how they’d developed a way to talk through their differences or just to let them go. Their sex life waxed and waned, but neither felt rejected when the other wasn’t interested.

When Linda became ill, Greg researched the Internet about her disease, used his connections at the hospital to investigate treatment options, and rearranged his business life so that he could go to her medical appointments. Although he was distraught about her illness, he said that it was his job to keep things positive and moving forward, and that if he allowed himself to ruminate on the more frightening thoughts, he would be less able to help.

Greg was a balanced rescuer. He had chosen a good partner, friend, co-parent, and lover. Even though Linda’s diagnosis threw Greg’s life far out of balance, he rose to the occasion by being present and supportive during Linda’s treatment. Then, demonstrating empathy based on his own painful childhood memories and uncertainty during his mother’s absence and illness, Greg sought consultation to help his daughters.

Although Greg was a balanced rescuer, his childhood had been far from perfect, and he had suffered the trauma of the temporary loss of his mother and seeing her so ill. However, his father’s stable presence and his mother’s fighting spirit communicated to Greg that his parents were strong and, by extension, that Greg was safe. His father’s response to Greg’s hesitation to visit his mother had made Greg feel guilty, but it also communicated that Greg was strong enough to handle visiting his mother and that at times, it was necessary to put his own fears aside in order to help someone else. This is what Greg was now doing as he helped Linda.

After his father’s death, Greg’s drinking had masked his grief, guilt, and helplessness concerning his father’s later unhappiness. Through behaving like his father and abusing alcohol, Greg’s drinking also served to keep his father symbolically alive and with him. Fortunately, Greg also had identified with the stronger father of his early childhood, as well as with his “fighter”mother. Recognizing the dangerous path he was on, Greg successfully changed course: he stopped drinking and established a meaningful relationship.

This article is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.

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Dr. Mary Lamia is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who works with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens in her Marin County private practice. She is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Extending psychological knowledge to the public has been her endeavor for thirty years. Dr. Lamia’s opinion has been sought in hundreds of television, radio, and print media interviews and discussions, and for nearly a decade she hosted a weekly call-in talk show, KidTalk with Dr. Mary, on Radio Disney stations. Her books include: Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings: and, The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others.

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