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The Dangers of the Savior Complex in Relationships

Being a knight in shining armor doesn't always lead to a happily ever after.

savior complex
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  • Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

The term “savior complex” has a few different definitions, but I think of it as someone with Knight in Shining Armor Syndrome, regardless of if they’re a man or a woman. Someone with this complex would feel especially attracted to people who they believe need rescuing somehow. Romantic comedies have turned this into a trope, often with an aspect of physical danger attached. A man and a woman can’t just meet and go on dates. They must meet with the added tension of a rescue attempt thrown in early on in the relationship. 

It’s never been that dramatic in my life. Sometimes, it just feels so nice to be needed that you don’t recognize quite what you’re getting into. I met the man I’ll call Eric (name has been changed) on an online dating site. He lived a couple of hours away, but I was OK with this. I was probably too OK with this. 

He had an ex-wife. Well, she wasn’t technically his ex-wife yet. When I started telling my friends this story, there were long run-on sentences full of explanations for why it was okay that my boyfriend wasn’t legally divorced yet. I’ll spare you the details of those. There were child custody issues, to put it mildly. While Eric made his ex out to be a movie villain, I was at a point in my life where I wanted to believe in movie villains. I wanted white hats and black hats. I wanted chyrons on screen that clearly identified the good guys and the bad guys. I needed it to be that simple. 

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I needed this because I was still stuck on all the gray areas surrounding the last guy I dated. He was dead, so I couldn’t exactly call him up and ask him to define the relationship. He died by suicide three months after we first started talking on a dating site. I don’t want to overstate the role I played in this guy’s life. We met, we liked each other, and we went on a few dates, including a weekend camping trip. I was quite fond of him. I don’t go on trips that require me to pee behind a tree for just anyone.

When I found his obituary online, I got stuck in in the muddy space between what I had wanted us to be and whatever it was we had been. After a few months of this complicated grief, I told myself I had to feel normal again. I had to get out there and date again. That’s when I met Eric. 

It wasn’t a particularly dramatic meeting. He messaged me online, and then I wrote back, and it turned out we liked each other enough to start dating. It was nothing like 2001’s The Wedding Planner, where Jennifer Lopez gets one of her fancy designer heels stuck in a manhole cover right as a garbage bin starts rolling downhill towards her. Naturally, along comes Matthew McConaughey to push her out of the way. Coincidentally, he lands on top of her, and they exchange a smoldering glance. Hey, he’s a pediatrician! But oops, he’s also engaged. Because Jennifer’s character is both unlucky in love and unlucky enough to be a wedding planner named Mary, he’s engaged to one of her brides-to-be. 

We know right away that Dr. Steve’s fiancé is not The One, mostly because she’s named Fran and not played by Jennifer Lopez. Luckily, she doesn’t really love Steve anyway, so no harm done! 

I’m picking on a movie that came out 16 years ago because the initial rescue scene is so goofy (It’s a manhole! Get it? Because she has a man-shaped hole in her life?). But it’s far from the only movie to put one or both of its characters (but usually the female) in physical peril on the way to a happy ending. If they can handle hostage situations/gigantic meteors/weapons of mass destruction, surely the rest of life will be a breeze. Just get them past the initial danger, and they’ll realize how much they need each other. 

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The problem with me and Eric, though, was that we couldn’t get past the initial danger, even though it wasn’t the physical kind. I tried to convince myself it was OK that he had baggage. I had just turned 30, so I told myself dating at that age meant dealing with stuff like this. I had plenty of emotional baggage of my own, so maybe his issues offered me some sort of twisted justification for mine. Besides, Eric would at least talk to me about his problems. The last guy hadn’t, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like I should have recognized them anyway. 

savior complex
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  • Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

I wonder now if I should have seen the red flags before getting involved with a man in the middle of a very complicated legal drama. I also wonder if he should have seen the red flags before getting involved with a woman whose last relationship sounded more like a ghost story. 

I often didn’t know what to say to Eric other than “Keep fighting” and “Don’t give up,” but I tried. For a while, I felt OK about sticking around and waiting for the divorce drama to pass. Though I did wonder if Eric had a pattern of being attracted to mentally unstable women. If so, what did that make me? 

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We broke up before the custody battle was settled. When I mentioned “taking a break,” he didn’t seem mad, just sad. I was sad, too, and very tired. He didn’t need me so much as he needed a family law attorney. I couldn’t provide him with one, and neither of us had the keys to a time machine. 

I took a long break from dating after that. I didn’t trust myself anymore. I had to figure out how to do that again before I could get back out there.

I’m even further into my 30s now. It’s true that pretty much everyone in my age bracket has some sort of history, but it shouldn’t be something you’re lugging around with you constantly. It should be up there on a shelf with all the other life experience you’ve accumulated.  

Most of the time, I don’t feel haunted by my past anymore, but I had to get there on my own. No one else could do it for me. 

One of my favorite romantic plot lines is two damaged people who bring out the best in each other. But there’s a big difference between helping someone heal and feeling like you must “fix” them. The former is something you do together. The latter is something you try to do all by yourself, with or without your partner’s permission. 

All things considered, a part of me would prefer some mild physical danger, something like that pesky runaway garbage bin in The Wedding Planner. At some point, it either hits you or it doesn’t. You don’t just stand there constantly bracing for an impact you aren’t sure will arrive. 

Featured still from "The Wedding Planner" via Columbia Pictures.