How My Childhood Heroes Taught Me to Manage My Well-being in Relationships

Books we read in our childhood can influence us in ways that only become clear when we revisit them as adults. In my case, the wonderful Brontë sisters inadvertently sent me on a search for wayward men to rescue.

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I caught the Brontë bug early. I was captivated by the fascinating story of three clergyman’s daughters growing up in the wilds of Yorkshire, their lives constrained by sex and class, but who managed to conjure up such vast, richly imagined, and boldly anarchic novels. Their books were utterly compelling, and all three Brontë sisters were my childhood heroes.

The books they wrote also spoke to the lonely, troubled teenager in me. I may not have been experiencing the social and physical isolation shared by Emily, Anne, and Charlotte Brontë, but I felt every bit as alone and misunderstood as them. So, when Emily’s Cathy Earnshaw finds her destiny in the wild and cruelly possessive Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre returns to Thornfield to find Mr. Rochester blinded, maimed, and with his first wife conveniently dead, I relished the romantic tragedy of the first book and the “happy ending” of the second. 

A recent reread of Jane Eyre encouraged me to reflect on the impact of these books on my younger self, and particularly on my expectations of romantic love. What did I find so attractive about the obsessive darkness of Heathcliff, and the controlling, deceitful Rochester, who kept his first wife locked in the attic of his country house, denying her existence to the extent that he almost got away with tricking the much younger and naïve Jane into marriage? 

The Brontë sisters managed to make these troubled men so attractive that I am sure I wasn’t the only young woman who was blindsided into seeking completely the wrong qualities in potential boyfriends, at risk of developing a full-blown case of what psychologists have called “white knight,” or rescuer, syndrome.

Rescuer syndrome describes an attraction to romantic partners perceived as needing to be saved. 

The would-be rescuer displays behaviour which goes beyond mere altruism, or the natural desire to help someone they care about. They invest time, energy, and other resources into trying to solve their loved one’s problems and, on the face of it at least, will not seek much in return except, of course, the love, praise, and gratitude of the person being rescued. 

Jane Eyre is a classic rescuer. She falls in love with the brooding, bad-tempered, and clearly troubled Rochester and becomes convinced of her own ability to offer redemptive love, with little expectation of reciprocity. 

My early romantic relationships were almost certainly marred by a desire to “rescue,” whether from the kind of commitment phobia many of the objects of my affections seemed to experience (“He’s been hurt before, so I will take the emotional hardship on the chin and prove to him that I will stick by him no matter what,”) or from something more serious (“I know he has a substance problem… If I love him enough, I will be able to save him from himself”). In classic rescuer mode, I would set about trying to make these relationships work, often at the expense of my own needs and emotional well-being. 

If I had been encouraged to take a step outside of my own dramas and consider things from a different, and more objective, perspective, I may have had healthier relationships. I might have been better able to appreciate that I was not the main character in anyone’s story but my own, and that I’m not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.

If you have a relative or friend who you suspect is caught in the position of “rescuer,” one of the first ways to help them get out of it is to encourage them to take this “sideways step” and recognise the dynamics that are in play. Try asking them, “What is your intention towards this person?” to unroot any white knight tendencies. Another useful question to ask is, “What would you tell your best friend, if she/he was in this position?”

In common with many rescuers, I suspect that it was a lack of self-worth or confidence that lay at the root of my own well-meant, but ultimately misguided attempts to “save” people (generally men) from themselves. Developing strategies to work on these, one of which may be working with a coach to identify one’s own unique strengths and attributes, and to recognise and then reject negative and irrational aspects of our character, may help to avert future misguided missions.

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