What Is the Oedipus Complex?

Oedipus solved the riddle of the sphinx.

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Sigmund Freud coined the term Oedipus Complex to describe the rivalry a child develops with their same-sex parent for the sexual attentions of their opposite-sex parent. It is one of Freud’s most well-known but controversial ideas. Freud detailed the Oedipus Complex as part of his psychosexual stage theory of development.

Key Takeaways: Oedipus Complex

  • According to Freud's psychosexual stage theory of development, the child goes through five stages that lead to the development of his or her personality: oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital.
  • The Oedipus Complex describes the rivalry a child develops with their same-sex parent for the sexual attentions of their opposite-sex parent, and it is the major conflict of the Phallic stage of Freud’s theory, which takes place between 3 and 5 years old.
  • While Freud proposed there was an Oedipus Complex for both girls and boys, his ideas about the complex in boys were much better developed, while his ideas about girls have been the source of a great deal of criticism.

Origins

The Oedipus Complex was first outlined in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, but he didn’t label the concept until 1910. The complex was named after the title character in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In this Greek tragedy, Oedipus is abandoned by his parents as a baby. Then, as an adult, Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Freud felt Oedipus’ lack of awareness of his predicament was much like a child’s because a child’s sexual desire for their opposite-sex parent and aggression and envy towards their same-sex parent is unconscious.

Freud was more successful at developing his ideas about the complex in boys than in girls.

Development of the Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus Complex develops during the Phallic stage in Freud’s psychosexual stages, which takes place between the ages of 3 and 5. At that time, a boy starts to unconsciously desire his mother. However, he soon learns he can’t act on his desires. At the same time he notices his father receives the affections from his mother that he covets, causing jealousy and rivalry.

Although the boy fantasizes about challenging his father, he knows he couldn’t do so in real life. Also, the boy’s confused by his conflicting feelings towards his father—although he’s envious of his father, he also loves and needs him. Furthermore, the boy develops castration anxiety, a concern that the father will castrate him as punishment for his feelings.

Resolution of the Oedipus Complex

The boy uses a series of defense mechanisms to resolve the Oedipus Complex. He uses repression to relegate his incestuous feelings towards his mother to the unconscious. He also represses his feelings of rivalry towards his father by identifying with him instead. By holding his father up as a role model, the boy no longer has to fight him. Instead, he learns from him and becomes more like him.

It is at this point that the boy develops a superego, the conscience of the personality. The superego adopts the values of the boy’s parents and other authority figures, which gives the child an internal mechanism to guard against inappropriate impulses and actions.

At each stage of Freud's theory of development, children must resolve a central conflict in order to move on to the next stage. If the child fails to do so, they will not develop a healthy adult personality. Thus, the boy must resolve the Oedipus Complex during the Phallic stage. If this doesn’t happen, in adulthood the boy will experience difficulties in the areas of competition and love.

In the case of competition, the adult may apply his experience of rivalry with his father to other men, causing him to feel apprehensive and guilty about competing with them. In the case of love, the man may become mother-fixated, inadvertently seeking out significant others that resemble his mother.

The Electra Complex

Freud also specified an Oedipus Complex for little girls, called the Electra Complex, a reference to another Greek mythological figure. The Electra Complex begins when the girl realizes she lacks a penis. She blames her mother, developing resentment towards her as well as penis envy. At the same time, the girl starts to see her father as a love object. When she learns she can’t act on her affections for her father but her mother can, she becomes jealous of her mother.

Eventually, the girl gives up her incestuous and rivalrous feelings, identifies with the mother, and develops a superego. However, unlike Freud's conclusions about the resolution of the Oedipus Complex in little boys, he wasn’t sure why the complex resolved in little girls. Freud reasoned that perhaps the little girl is motivated by worries of the loss of her parents’ love. Freud also believed that the girl develops a weaker superego because the resolution of the girl’s complex isn’t driven by something as concrete as castration anxiety.

If the girl fails to resolve the Electra Complex at the Phallic stage she may develop similar difficulties as an adult as a boy who fails to resolve the Oedipus Complex, including becoming father-fixated when it comes to significant others. Freud also noted that the disappointment the girl felt when she learned she lacked a penis could result in a masculinity complex as an adult. This could cause a woman to avoid intimacy with men because such intimacy would remind her of what she lacks. Instead, she may try to rival and surpass men by becoming excessively aggressive. 

Criticisms and Controversies

While the concept of the Oedipus Complex endures, many criticisms have been leveled at it over the years. Freud’s ideas about the Oedipus Complex in girls, in particular, were highly controversial from the time he first presented them. Many felt it was incorrect to apply a masculine understanding of sexuality to girls, arguing that girls’ sexuality may mature in different ways than boys.

Others argued that Freud’s biases towards women were culturally based. For example, psychoanalytic writer Clara Thompson refuted Freud’s idea that penis envy is biologically based. Instead, she pointed out that girls envy boys because they often lack the same privileges and opportunities. Thus, penis envy isn’t due to a literal desire, but a symbolic one for equal rights.

Some also objected to Freud’s ideas about women’s inferior morality, arguing they are reflective of his own prejudices. And in fact, research has shown that boys and girls can develop equally strong senses of morality. 

In addition, while Freud argued that the Oedipus Conflict is universal, anthropologists like Malinowski countered that the nuclear family is not the standard in every culture. Malinowski's study of the Trobriand Islanders found that relationships between father and son were good. Instead, it was the son's uncle that served as his disciplinarian. In this case, then, the Oedipus Complex wouldn’t play out as Freud described.

Finally, Freud’s ideas about the Oedipus Complex were developed from a single case study, that of Little Hans. Relying on only one case to draw conclusions raises questions on scientific grounds. In particular, Freud’s objectivity and the reliability of his data have been called into question.

Sources

  • Cherry, Kendra. “What is an Oedipus Complex?” Verywell Mind, 20 Sept. 2018, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-an-oedipal-complex-2795403
  • Crain, William. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. 5th ed., Pearson Prentice Hall. 2005.
  • McLeod, Saul. “Oedipal Complex.” Simply Psychology, 3 Sept. 2018, https://www.simplypsychology.org/oedipal-complex.html
  • McAdams, Dan. The Person: An Introduction to the Science of Personality Psychology. 5th ed., Wiley, 2008.