What is the Oedipus Complex?

Robert Johnston
What is the Oedipus Complex?


  • Origin of the Oedipus Complex
  • Where does the name Oedipus come from?
  • What is Freud's Oedipus complex?
  • Electra complex and penis envy
  • Criticisms of Freud's psychosexual theory
  • How is the Oedipus complex resolved?
    • Castration anxiety
  • What happens if the Oedipus complex is not overcome?

Origin of the Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus complex is a term coined by Sigmund Freud in his theory of the psychosexual stages of development to describe a child's feelings of desire for his parent of the opposite sex, and jealousy and anger toward the parent of the same sex. It basically refers to the boy feeling that he is competing with his father for his mother's possession, while a girl feels that he is competing with his mother for his father's affection..

According to Freud, children see their father of the same sex as a rival for the attention and affection of the father of the opposite sex..

Freud first proposed the concept of the Oedipus complex in his 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams, although he did not formally begin the use of the term Oedipus complex until 1910..

Where does the name Oedipus come from?

Freud gives this name to the complex after the character of Sophocles in Greek mythology, who kills King Oedipus, who is his father and marries his mother. In legend, Oedipus is abandoned at birth and therefore does not know who his parents are. It is only after he has killed his father to marry his mother that he discovers their true identities..

What is Freud's Oedipus complex?

In psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus complex refers to the desire of the child to have a sexual relationship with the father of the opposite sex, but above all it refers to the erotic attention of a male child towards his mother. This desire is kept in the unconscious through repression, but Freud believed that this feeling still exerts a strong influence on the child's behavior and plays an important role in child development..

Freud claimed that the Oedipus complex played an important role in the phallic stage of psychosexual development, between the ages of 3 and 5. He also believed that the successful completion of this stage consisted in identification with the father of the same sex, which ultimately leads to the development of a mature sexual identity..

According to Freud, the child wishes to possess his mother and replace his father, seeing him as a rival in the achievement of the mother's affection.

Some manifestations of the behavior of this complex could imply that a child expresses possession towards the figure of his mother, telling his father not to hug or kiss his mother. Girls at this age can say they plan to marry their parents when they are older.

Electra complex and penis envy

The analogous stage for girls is known as the Electra complex in which girls feel lust for their fathers and jealous for their mothers. The term Electra complex was introduced by Carl Jung to describe how this complex manifests itself in girls. Freud, however, defines the term Oedipus complex to refer to both boys and girls, although he believed that each sex experiences this stage differently..

Freud also suggests that when girls discover that they do not have a penis, they develop penis envy and resentment towards their mothers for "sending them into the world under-equipped." Over time, this resentment gives way to identification with his mother and the process of internalizing the attributes and characteristics of his same-sex parent..

Criticisms of Freud's psychosexual theory

These views of Freud on female sexuality were intensely criticized. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney completely refuted Freud's concept of penis envy, and instead suggested that men experience belly envy due to their inability to have children..

Freud himself admitted that his understanding of women was perhaps the least accurate. "We know less about girls' sex lives than boys," he explained. "But we need not be ashamed of this distinction. After all, adult women's sex lives are a 'black continent' for psychology."

How is the Oedipus complex resolved?

At each stage of Freud's theory of psychosexual development, children are faced with a developmental conflict that must be resolved in order to form a healthy adult personality..

In order to become a successful adult with a healthy identity, the child must identify with the parent of the same sex in order to resolve the conflict of the phallic stage..

So how does the child solve the Oedipus complex? Freud suggested that while at first the Id wants to eliminate the father, the Ego, much more realistic, knows that the father is much stronger. The It, as we know, is the primary source of energy that seeks to immediately satisfy all unconscious impulses. The I is the part of the personality that emerges after mediating between the impulses of the id and the demands of reality..

Castration anxiety

According to Freud, the child then experiences what he called castration anxiety or castration fear, both literal and figurative. Freud believed that as the boy becomes aware of the physical differences between men and women, he assumes that the female penis has been withdrawn and that his father can also castrate him as punishment for lusting after his mother..

It is at this point that the Overself is formed. The Super-ego becomes a kind of internal moral authority, which internalizes the figure of the father and strives to repress the impulses of the Id..

The child's superego is the one that finally represses the Oedipus Complex. External influences, including social norms, religious teachings, and other cultural influences help contribute to the repression of the Oedipus complex..

It is from this whole process that the child's consciousness arises, or his general sense of right and wrong. In some cases, however, Freud also suggests that these repressed feelings could also lead to an unconscious feeling of guilt..

What happens if the Oedipus complex is not overcome?

According to Freud, as conflicts in other psychosexual stages are not resolved, a fixation remains at that point in child development. Freud suggests that boys who do not overcome this conflict effectively are left with a "maternal fixation", while girls generate an "obsession with the father." Later, as adults, these individuals will look for romantic partners who resemble their parent of the opposite sex..

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