Oedipus Complex

freud by by Darrel Perkins

In psychoanalytic theory, the term Oedipus [ed-uh-puhscomplex denotes the emotions and ideas that the mind keeps in the unconscious, via dynamic repression, that concentrates upon a child’s desire to sexually possess the parent of the opposite sex. Sigmund Freud, who coined the term believed that the Oedipus complex is a desire for the parent in both males and females; Freud deprecated the term ‘Electra complex,’ which was introduced by Carl Gustav Jung in regards to the Oedipus complex manifested in young girls.

The Oedipus complex occurs in the third — phallic stage (ages 3–6) — of five psychosexual development stages: (i) the oral, (ii) the anal, (iii) the phallic, (iv) the latent, and (v) the genital — in which the source of libidinal pleasure is in a different erogenous zone of the infant’s body.

In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, child’s identification with the same-sex parent is the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex and of the Electra complex; key psychological experiences that are necessary for the development of a mature sexual role and identity. Freud further proposed that boys and girls experience the complexes differently: boys in a form of castration anxiety (the fear of emasculation in both the literal and metaphorical sense), girls in a form of penis envy (the realization of not having a penis); and that unsuccessful resolution of the complexes might lead to a neurosis, like paedophilia. Men and women who are fixated in the Oedipal and Electra stages of their psychosexual development might be considered ‘mother-fixated’ and ‘father-fixated.’ In adult life this can lead to a choice of a sexual partner who resembles one’s parent.

Oedipus refers to a Greek mythological character, who unwittingly kills his father, Laius, and marries his mother, Jocasta. A play based on the myth, ‘Oedipus Rex,’ was written by Sophocles, ca. 429 BCE. Modern productions of Sophocles’ play were staged in Paris and Vienna in the 19th century and were phenomenally successful in the 1880s and 1890s. In his book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ first published in 1899, Freud proposed that an Oedipal desire is a universal, psychological phenomenon innate (phylogenetic) to human beings, and the cause of much unconscious guilt. He based this on his analysis of his feelings attending the play, his anecdotal observations of neurotic or normal children, and on the fact that the ‘Oedipal Rex’ play was effective on both ancient and modern audiences (he also claimed the play ‘Hamlet’ was effective for the same reason).

Freud described the man Oedipus: ‘His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.’

In the phallic stage, a boy’s decisive psychosexual experience is the Oedipus complex — his son–father competition for possession of mother. It is in this third stage of psychosexual development that the child’s genitalia are his or her primary erogenous zone; thus, when children become aware of their bodies, the bodies of other children, and the bodies of their parents, they gratify physical curiosity by undressing and exploring themselves, each other, and their genitals, so learning the anatomic differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ and the gender differences between ‘boy’ and ‘girl.’

Despite mother being the parent who primarily gratifies the child’s desires, the child begins forming a discrete sexual identity — ‘boy,’ ‘girl’ — that alters the dynamics of the parent and child relationship; the parents become objects of infantile libidinal energy. The boy directs his libido (sexual desire) upon his mother, and directs jealousy and emotional rivalry against his father — because it is he who sleeps with his mother. Moreover, to facilitate union with mother, the boy’s id (instinctual drive) wants to kill father (as did Oedipus), but the pragmatic ego (conscious awareness), based upon the reality principle (the ability of the mind to assess the reality of the external world), knows that the father is the stronger of the two males competing to possess the one female. Nonetheless, the boy remains ambivalent about his father’s place in the family, which is manifested as fear of castration by the physically greater father; the fear is an irrational, subconscious manifestation of the infantile id.

In both sexes, defense mechanisms provide transitory resolutions of the conflict between the drives of the id and the drives of the ego. The first defense mechanism is repression, the blocking of memories, emotional impulses, and ideas from the conscious mind; yet its action does not resolve the id–ego conflict. The second defense mechanism is identification, by which the child incorporates, to his or her ego or superego (internalized cultural rules), the personality characteristics of the same-sex parent; in so adapting, the boy diminishes his castration anxiety, because his likeness to father protects him from father’s wrath in their maternal rivalry; by so adapting, the girl facilitates identifying with mother, who understands that, in being females, neither of them possesses a penis, and thus are not antagonists.

Unresolved son–father competition for the psycho-sexual possession mother might result in a phallic stage fixation conducive to a boy becoming an aggressive, over-ambitious, vain man. Therefore, the satisfactory parental handling and resolution of the Oedipus complex are most important in developing the male infantile super-ego, because, by identifying with a parent, the boy internalizes Morality, thereby, he chooses to comply with societal rules, rather than reflexively complying in fear of punishment.

In ‘Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy’ (1909), the case study of the equinophobic (afraid of horses) boy ‘Little Hans,’ Freud showed that the relation between Hans’s fears — of horses and of his father — derived from external factors, the birth of a sister, and internal factors, the desire of the infantile id to replace father as companion to mother, and guilt for enjoying the masturbation normal to a boy of his age. Moreover, his admitting to wanting to procreate with mother was considered proof of the boy’s sexual attraction to the opposite-sex parent; he was a heterosexual male. Yet, the boy Hans was unable to relate fearing horses to fearing his father. As the treating psychoanalyst, Freud noted that ‘Hans had to be told many things that he could not say himself” and that ‘he had to be presented with thoughts, which he had, so far, shown no signs of possessing.’

Initially, Freud equally applied the Oedipus complex to the psychosexual development of boys and girls, but later modified the female aspects of the theory as ‘feminine Oedipus attitude’ and ‘negative Oedipus complex’; yet, it was his student–collaborator Carl Jung, who, in 1913, proposed the ‘Electra complex’ to describe a girl’s daughter–mother competition for psychosexual possession of the father.

In the phallic stage, a girl’s Electra complex is her decisive psychodynamic experience in forming a discrete sexual identity (ego). Whereas a boy develops castration anxiety, a girl develops penis envy rooted in anatomic fact: without a penis, she cannot sexually possess mother, as the infantile id demands. Resultantly, the girl redirects her desire for sexual union upon father, thus progressing to heterosexual femininity, which culminates in bearing a child, who replaces the absent penis. Furthermore, after the phallic stage, the girl’s psychosexual development includes transferring her primary erogenous zone from the infantile clitoris to the adult vagina.

Freud thus considered a girl’s negative Oedipus complex to be more emotionally intense than that of a boy, resulting, potentially, in a woman of submissive, insecure personality; thus might an unresolved Electra complex, daughter–mother competition for psychosexual possession of father, lead to a phallic-stage fixation conducive to a girl becoming a woman who continually strives to dominate men, either as an unusually seductive woman (high self-esteem) or as an unusually submissive woman (low self-esteem). Therefore, the satisfactory parental handling and resolution of the Electra complex are most important in developing the female infantile super-ego, because, by identifying with a parent, the girl internalizes Morality; thereby, she chooses to comply with societal rules, rather than reflexively complying in fear of punishment.

In 1920, Sigmund Freud wrote that ‘with the progress of psychoanalytic 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’; thereby it remained a theoretic cornerstone of psychoanalysis until about 1930, when psychoanalysts began investigating the pre-Oedipal son–mother relationship within the theory of psychosexual development. Janet Malcolm reports that by the late 20th century, to the object relations psychology ‘avant-garde, the events of the Oedipal period are pallid and inconsequential, in comparison with the cliff-hanging psychodramas of infancy. . . . For Kohut, as for Winnicott and Balint, the Oedipus complex is an irrelevance in the treatment of severe pathology.’ Nonetheless, ego psychology continued to maintain that ‘the Oedipal period — roughly three-and-a-half to six years — is like Lorenz standing in front of the chick, it is the most formative, significant, moulding experience of human life . . . If you take a person’s adult life — his love, his work, his hobbies, his ambitions — they all point back to the Oedipus complex.’

Contemporary psychoanalysts accept the universality of the Oedipus complex to different degrees; Hans Keller proposed it is so ‘at least in Western societies’; and others consider that ethnologists already have established its temporal and geographic universality. Nonetheless, few psychoanalysts disagree that the ‘child then entered an Oedipal phase . . . [which] involved an acute awareness of a complicated triangle involving mother, father, and child’ and that ‘both positive and negative Oedipal themes are typically observable in development.’ Despite evidence of parent–child conflict, the evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson note that it is not for sexual possession of the opposite sex-parent; thus, in ‘Homicide’ (1988), they proposed that the Oedipus complex yields few testable predictions, because they found no evidence of the Oedipus complex in people.

Moreover, in ‘No More Silly Love Songs: A Realist’s Guide to Romance’ (2010), Anouchka Grose said that ‘a large number of people, these days believe that Freud’s Oedipus complex is defunct . . . ‘disproven’, or simply found unnecessary, sometime in the last century.’ Moreover, from the post-modern perspective, Grose said that ‘the Oedipus complex isn’t really like that. It’s more a way of explaining how human beings are socialized . . . learning to deal with disappointment.’ The elementary understanding being that ‘You have to stop trying to be everything for your primary career, and get on with being something for the rest of the world.’ Nonetheless, the open question remains whether or not such a post–Lacanian interpretation ‘stretches the Oedipus complex to a point where it almost doesn’t look like Freud’s any more.’

Parent-child and sibling-sibling incestuous unions are almost universally forbidden. An explanation for this incest taboo is that rather than instinctual sexual desire there is instinctual sexual aversion against these unions (Westermarck effect). Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wrote that ‘The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard. Obviously, it did not seem so to Freud, who wrote that as a boy he once had an erotic reaction to watching his mother dressing. But Freud had a wet-nurse, and may not have experienced the early intimacy that would have tipped off his perceptual system that Mrs. Freud was his mother.’

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