It’s a fairytale narrative that we’ve all grown up with – the knight in shining armor who saves the damsel in distress.
Sure, we can all recognize that fairytales are exaggerated – not to mention depressingly heteronormative – but there are certain aspects of that narrative that endure.
Namely, the idea that saving someone is romantic, which in turn also makes the idea of being saved incredibly attractive.
This is a theme that is reinforced by media time and time again. In some respects, it’s a reflection of basic human nature. Most people want to take care of others, especially their partners, and many of us enjoy being taken care of. However, there’s a point where these behaviors can lead to some very unhealthy relationships.
If you specifically seek out such dynamics, you may have a savior complex.
What Is a Savior Complex?
Put simply, a savior complex can be defined as someone who feels compelled to save other people.
The savior is usually assumed to be male and frankly misogynistic. Nice Guys™ are most commonly associated with a savior complex, otherwise known as men who think they have to rescue you from other guys or from your past relationship baggage. This guy is the self-designated savior that nobody wants.
Then there’s the type of savior that we’re taught to find attractive. I call it the Edward Cullen effect. Apparently, having a guy who’s controlling or emotionally unstable or unnaturally infatuated with you is okay as long as they’re hot!
I kid, but think about all of the negative qualities that girls are taught to romanticize with boys. It’s not emotional constipation or lack of communication; he’s just brooding!
As you’ve probably noticed, the stereotypical perception of the savior complex is ridiculously gendered, with men ready to sweep in and do the saving and women supposedly wanting to be saved.
In reality, any individual or relationship can have a savior complex, regardless of your gender or your partner’s gender.
Reverse Savior Complex
While you often only hear discussions around so-called “rescuers,” it’s equally important to note that there’s also a reverse savior complex, referring to those who feel they need to be saved.
In the Reenactment Triangle, this is known as the “victim” role. We find ourselves drawn to repeat trauma of the past in present situations. The victim is described as feeling “helpless and oppressed.”
Basically, victims feel as though they’re bound to experience the same personal failures repeatedly.
In the context of a relationship, this can mean that they feel their inadequacy as a partner is predetermined. They may also depend on you to compensate for these perceived flaws.
Sometimes this can be harder to spot because it’s so deeply wedded to insecurity and low self-esteem, which is heavily normalized and even glorified in romance, particularly with women.
I’ll use my experiences as a brief example. I met a girl that I really liked. We were flirting and everything was going well. Unfortunately, as soon as talk of a relationship came about, came the dreaded admission: “I suck at relationships.”
Nevertheless, we wanted to give it a shot.
What followed was a progressively more dysfunctional few weeks of mutual masochism. I was excited to enjoy the fluffy part of a potential new relationship, whereas she became fixated on her alleged inferiority.
Frequent phrases were “I’m not good enough,” “I’m a fuck up,” and “You’ll just leave anyway,” with no further communication or explanation. I would try and reassure her to no avail.
I was torn between wanting to support her and resenting her because our entire dynamic became consumed by her fear of self sabotage rather than actually getting to know each other.
With that said, I suppose having a reverse savior complex can go beyond wanting someone to fix you and turn into believing that no one can fix you, meaning that relationships can become unhealthy before they even start.
The bottom line is that people who seek a savior tend to think that they are damaged in some way, leading them to believe that they need a partner to “heal” them and make them whole.
You Can’t Save Everyone
It should go without saying that although these traits might look appealing on paper, they don’t work well for real life. Savior complexes can be hard on both partners, regardless of which side you’re on.
If you want to be the savior, you’re essentially saying to your partner that you see them as a project to be fixed.
Even if the challenge of their flaws isn’t the primary reason you’re attracted to them and even if they want your help, it still sends the message that you think they need to improve and better themselves somehow.
First of all, you’re dating someone, not flipping a house. You might convince them to make minor lifestyle changes, but you can’t expect them to completely overhaul themselves. It’s a little bit condescending to treat them as your personal pet project.
Maybe they do want to make changes. Maybe they do have a certain goal in mind. That’s great. Allow them to accomplish something on their own. You can support them without spoon-feeding them.
If they’re unwilling to do something or get something without you bringing it to them on a silver platter, it’s probably a sign that you’re disproportionately invested and perhaps being exploited.
You’re their partner, not their parent.
And while certainly a healthy relationship involves some nurturing and taking care of one another, according to Transactional Anaylsis theory, that parent-child way of related to one another should only take up so much space in a romantic relationship.
Second of all, your partner might be perfectly fine with the way they are and not want to make any changes. If you look for flaws as a means of finding a purpose or direction for the relationship, that speaks more to issues you might want to address within yourself.
From your partner’s perspective, they might find it annoying or even critical that you’re fixating on all the things you think need to change. Of course everyone wants the best for their significant other, and you might be convinced that you are truly helping them improve their life.
Ultimately however, when you agree to date someone, although it might not be unconditional acceptance right out of the gate, there is a general assumption that you like the overall package.
Turning your relationship into a perpetual to-do list puts a heavy strain on trust building. It takes the fun out of your dynamic and prevents you from sharing experiences.
Instead of worrying about saving them, focus on getting stronger as a couple.
It’s Not Anyone’s Responsibility to Save You
Having a reverse savior complex can also lead to toxic relationships.
When you direct all of your energy towards the idea that you’re broken or damaged, you prevent yourself from being emotionally available for your partner.
Something really important that should be pointed out is that the insecurity that leads to low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority can also be linked to depression and anxiety. If you think that you or your partner might be struggling with something bigger, please seek professional help.
That’s not saying that depression and anxiety in themselves create unhealthy dynamics. In such cases, communication just becomes that much more vital so that your significant other can learn your triggers and understand your actions better.
On that note, you don’t have to be happy all the time or 100% confident in yourself to have a healthy relationship. I hear a lot of so-called empowerment advice like “Don’t love someone who can’t love themselves” and “You have to be your own hero.”
While I agree with that on some level in that you can expect your partner to wave a magic wand and make your problems go away, it also demonizes people with self-esteem issues as unworthy of love.
You can have insecurities and still have a functional relationship, but you should still be willing to support your significant other. Growth and change can be positive influences on romance.
If you get hung up on your own issues with your flawed self perception, you’ll never get to actually enjoy your relationship and bonding with your partner.
And hey, even if you are just being painfully honest about faults or unhealthy relationship tendencies that you do have, admitting them does not mean you are no longer accountable for them.
Maybe your partner just wants to date you. It can be incredibly uncomfortable and emotionally draining to force someone into the savior role, particularly if you’re not giving them the same amount of attention or investment.
Beyond that, perpetually tearing yourself down or presuming that they will inevitably abandon you can become very psychologically damaging for your significant other, if not teetering on psychological abuse.
It’s very stressful to constantly be around that much negativity because there’s only so much ego stroking that can be done.
Your partner is not your therapist, nor are they obligated to heal your past wounds. It’s called a partnership for a reason. You have to be willing to offer them as much support as you’re asking them to give.
Stay open-minded and try to avoid doubting yourself as much as possible. Your partner obviously wants you to be a big part of their life, so clearly they see something in you.
In lieu of self-deprecation, take the opportunity to challenge yourself to take risks. Communicate freely and take turns taking care of each other instead of reinforcing yourself as a burden.
The Right Relationship Doesn’t Need Rescuing
Periods of crisis are unavoidable in a relationship. Whether it’s directly related to your relationship or caused by other circumstances, there will be rough patches where one of you will depend on the other for support and comfort.
However, you need to separate the routine ups and downs of life from your motivations for being with your partner.
At the end of the day, all the angst and drama of wanting to save someone can’t be the driving force behind your relationship. It’s an attractive fantasy and your intentions might be good, but you’re eventually going to burn out because you’re chasing a reality that’s probably unattainable.
A strong relationship involves people with a moderate degree of self-assurance and a willingness to carve out their own path. You want someone you can grow with. You want someone who will stick by you through the bad, but also make you laugh and learn and explore.
The hero may win the heart of the damsel in distress, but should we really be idealizing children’s tales of borderline Stockholm syndrome? The basis for love should be a little firmer than circumstantial convenience or masochistic codependency.
Be with someone because you like them and appreciate them as a person. Teach each other new things and be excited for your future together.
Saving someone or being saved does sound romantic. True romance is not in that singular goal, but in an accumulation of everyday moments and lessons.
Erin Tatum is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s a feminist, queer theory lover, and television enthusiast living in Pennsylvania. She is particularly interested in examining the representation of marginalized identities in media. In addition to Everyday Feminism, she’s also a weekly contributor to B*tch Flicks. Follow her on Twitter @ErinTatum91 and read her articles here.