The Oedipus complex is a concept introduced by Sigmund Freud, part of his theory of psychosexual stages of development, that describes a desire for sexual involvement with the opposite-sex parent and a sense of jealousy and rivalry with the same-sex parent. This development stage of major conflict supposedly takes place in boys between 3 and 5 years old.
The term is named after the main character of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In this ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus is abandoned by his parents as a baby. Later, in adulthood, he becomes the king of Thebes and unknowingly murders his father and marries his mother. The female analog of the psychosexual term is the Electra complex, named after another tragic mythological figure who helped kill her mother. Oedipal is the generic term for both Oedipus and Electra complexes.
Often, these theories are interpreted as the propensity of men to pick women who look like their mothers, while women pick men who resemble their fathers.
Both the Oedipus and Electra complexes proved controversial since they were first introduced to the public in the early 20th-century. Critics of Freud note that there is very little empirical evidence proving the theory’s validity. Even so, the Oedipus cornerstone is still regarded as a cornerstone of psychoanalysis to this day.
According to Freud, personality development in childhood takes place during five psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages. In each stage, sexual energy is expressed in different ways and through different parts of the body. Each of these psychosexual stages is associated with a particular conflict that must be resolved in order to successfully and healthily advance to the next stage. The manner in which each conflict is resolved can determine a person’s personality and relationships in adulthood.
The Oedipal complex, introduced by Freud in 1899 in his work Interpretations of Dreams, occurs during the phallic stage of development (ages 3-6), a period when a child becomes aware of anatomical sex differences, setting in motion the conflict between erotic attraction, rivalry, jealousy, and resentment. The young boy unconsciously feels sexually attached to his mother. Envy and jealousy are aimed toward the father, the object of the mother’s affection and attention.
Freud believed that a little boy is condemned to follow his drives and wishes, in the same way as Sophocles’ Oedipus was condemned to do. That’s unless he abandoned his Oedipal wishes.
The hostile feelings towards the father cause castration anxiety, which is the irrational fear of both literal and figurative emasculation as punishment for desiring his mother. To cope with this anxiety, the boy starts identifying with the father, adopting attitudes, characteristics, and values that the father calls his own. In other words, the father transitions from rival to role model.
It is through this identification with the aggressor that the boy resolves the phallic stage of psychosexual development and acquires their “superego”, a set of morals and values that dominate the conscious adult mind. In the process, the child finally relinquishes sexual feelings towards the mother, transferring them to other female figures. The implication is that overcoming the Oedipus complex, and the reactions that follow, represent the most important social achievement of the human mind, Freud says.
“It has justly been said that the Oedipus complex is the nuclear of the neuroses, and constitutes the essential part of their content. It represents the peak of infantile sexuality, which, through its after-effects, exercises a decisive influence on the sexuality of adults. Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis. With the progress of psycho-analytic studies the importance of the Oedipus complex has become more and more clearly evident; its recognition has become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psychoanalysis from its opponents.”
Sigmund Freud, Footnote added to the 1914 edition of Three Essays on Sexuality (1905)
The Electra complex: the female Oedipal drive
Freud’s analogous psychosexual development for little girls involves the Electra complex, which begins the moment the girl realizes she lacks a penis. The mother is blamed for this and becomes an object of resentment for triggering penis envy. At the same time, the girl develops feelings of sexual desire towards her father. The fact that the mother receives affection from the father, while she doesn’t, causes the girl to become jealous of her mother, now seen as a rival.
Like little boys who have to overcome their Oedipus complex, little girls resolve this conflict by renouncing incestuous and rivalrous feelings, identifying with the mother, thereby developing the superego.
However, Freud was never able to form a complex conflict resolution theory for the Electra complex as he did for the Oedipus complex. In boys, the resolution of the Oedipal drive is motivated by fear of castration, but Freud was never able to find an equally potent incentive in little girls, although he reasoned she may be motivated by worries about the loss of her parents’ love.
As an interesting factoid, The Electra complex, while often attributed to Freud, was actually proposed by Freud’s protégé, Carl Jung.
Failing the Oedipal complex
Freud reasoned that if the conflict arising from the Oedipal complex isn’t successfully resolved, this can cause “neuroses”, which he defined as being manifestations of anxiety-producing unconscious material that is too difficult to think about consciously but must still find a means of expression. In other words, failing to resolve this central conflict before moving on to the next stage will result in experiencing difficulties in areas of love and competition later in adulthood.
Boys may become overly competitive with other men, projecting his latent rivalry for his father, and may become mother-fixated, seeking out significant others that resemble his mother, in more than one way. Meanwhile, girls who don’t overcome their penis envy may develop a masculinity complex as an adult, making it challenging for them to become intimate with men in adulthood. Instead, she may try to rival men by becoming excessively aggressive. The men that she interacts with intimately often resemble her father. Moreover, since the girls’ identification with their mothers is weaker than boys’ with their fathers (who have castration anxiety), the female superego is weaker and, consequently, their identity as separate, independent individuals is less well developed. Psychoanalysis is supposed to solve these unresolved conflicts.
Modern criticism of the Oedipal complex
Freud exemplified his theory of the Oedipal complex using a single case study, that of the famous “Little Hans”, a five-year-old boy with a phobia for horses. At about age three, little Hans showed an interest in both his own penis and those of other males, including animals. His alarmed mother threatened to cut off his penis unless he stops playing with it. Around this time, he developed an unnatural fear of horses. Freud reasoned that the little boy responded to his mother’s threat of castration by fearing horses and their large penises. The phobia subdued when Hans would interact with horses with a black harness over their noses that had black fur around the mouth, which his father suggested symbolized his mustache. In Freud’s interpretation, Hans’s fear of horses unconsciously represented his fear of his father. Hans’s Oedipus complex was only resolved when he started fantasizing about himself with a big penis and married to his mother, allowing him to overcome his castration anxiety and identify with his father.
Although the case study of Little Hans perfectly (and very conveniently) exemplifies Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, this is a single case — not nearly enough to generalize the results to the wider population. The problems don’t stop here. Freud only met Hans once and his information only came from Hans’s father, who was an open admirer of Freud’s work and could thus have asked leading questions in a way that would fabricate a fantasy of marriage to his mother. Even if Hans (whose real name was Herbert Graf) truly suffered from an Oedipus complex, that doesn’t mean it is universal as Freud claimed.
For instance, in 1929, Polish-British scientist Bronisław Kasper Malinowski, who is widely regarded as the father of modern anthropology, conducted a now-famous ethnographic study in the Trobriand Islands in Oceania where fathers aren’t at all involved in disciplining their sons. In this society, the relationship between father and son was always good. The disciplinarian in the Trobriand populations is the uncle, which shatters the Oedipus Complex.
Psychoanalytic writer Clara Thompson criticized Freud’s attitude towards women, which she believes is culturally biased. Freud’s idea that penis envy is biologically based can be explained better and with less woe-woe by the general envy girls feel towards boys because they often lack the same level of freedom at a young age and opportunities in adulthood. You may call it penis envy, as long as you use the term as a metaphor for wanting equal rights rather than what dangles between your legs.
All of that is to say that Freud’s Oedipal complex is riddled with holes and, at best, may apply to a small fraction of the general population. However, this doesn’t necessarily demean Freud’s brilliance. Both psychoanalysts and modern psychologists now agree that early experiences, even those when we were so young that we can’t remember them, have a profound influence on our adult selves — that’s just one of Freud’s legacies in developmental theory.