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Oedipus Complex – Meaning, Signs, and Ways to Resolve

Oedipus Complex – Meaning, Signs, and Ways to Resolve

Updated on Jun 14, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Oedipus Complex - Meaning, History, Signs, Treatment , Examples & More

Key Takeaways

  • Oedipus concept is the breakthrough discovery of Sigmund Freud.
  • It refers to a state of conflict where the child desires closeness to the opposite sex parent and considers the same-sex parent as a rival.
  • The Oedipus complex occurs in the phallic stage of psychosexual development.
  • The signs of the Oedipus complex include excessive clinginess and possessive feelings for the opposite sex parent.
  • The child also sees the same-sex parent as a rival and competitor.

Have you ever seen a child who is too clingy and gluey with a parent of the opposite sex? Maybe they will throw tantrums or act out in odd ways if not allowed to get closer to their favorite parent. 

This particular possessiveness and fixation that a child shows for the opposite-sex parent are known as the Oedipus complex.

This developmental conflict is common during the phallic stage of psychosexual development.

The child shows feelings of jealousy, anger, and antagonism against the same-sex parent. 

The psychoanalytic theory also claims that this ‘complex’ is a common developmental fixation that occurs in all children.

Freud added that the child holds an unconscious desire for his /her opposite-sex parent. Thus, it needs to be resolved in that particular stage. 

The complex will get resolved when the boy child starts to identify with the father and the girl identifies with the mother.

All this, with the hope of having a close bonding with the opposite sex parent without shame and guilt.

Read On…..

What is the Oedipus complex?

Oedipus complex is a term that describes a child’s desire toward his or her opposite-sex parent, and jealousy towards the same-sex parent.

This means that, according to this theory, a boy would be attracted to his mother and be jealous of his father.

On the other hand, a girl would feel that she is competing with her mother for the attention and love of her father.

As the mother becomes the primary caregiver, the boy child develops a close affinity with her and sees the father as a rival.

He fears his mother being taken away by the father. This feeling leads to extreme fear and anxiety.

The boy child considers his father as his competitor.

He holds an unconscious fear that if his father comes to know of his unconscious desire of possessing his mother, he will be castrated and punished.

Thus, to avoid the castration anxiety, the boy child identifies with the father and resolves the conflict that arises out of his oedipal feelings.

Historical background of the Oedipus complex (The Origin of the concept)

The world-famous Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud first used the term Oedipus complex in his theory of psychosexual development. 

This term was previously referred to as oedipal complex.

Freud first described this concept in his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1899.

It is worth mentioning here that Freud himself did not use the terms ‘Oedipus complex’ or ‘Oedipal complex’ back then. That happened much later, in 1910.

Freud named this complex after the character of Oedipus from an ancient Greek play, “Oedipus Rex.” In this play, the character Oedipus killed his father and married his mother.

The play by Sophocles is, in turn, based on a Greek myth. In this mythological story, the character Oedipus was abandoned at birth.

Thus, he did not know who his parents were. Tragically enough, he learned about their true identity after killing his father and marrying his mother.

Freud described the Oedipus complex for both boys and girls. However, his theory and explanations were more developed in the case of boys.

Signs or symptoms of Oedipus complex

Generally, we see that the signs or symptoms of the Oedipus complex usually vary from one child to another. 

Most people believe that these symptoms are always sexual. However, that is not necessarily true. In reality, the child expresses these symptoms in a subtle manner.

Some common symptoms of Oedipus complex in children are as follows: 

  • Being overly attached to the opposite-sex parent
  • Extreme possessiveness and clingy behavior
  • Antagonism and anger against the opposite-sex parent
  • No kissing or hugging the opposite sex parent by the same-sex parent
  • Jealousy and hostile attitudes showed through stubbornness and aggressive acts towards same-sex parents
  • Too much attachment and showering of affection for the same-sex parent
  • Having fantasy or unconscious desire to marry the opposite sex parent
  • Mistrust of same-sex parent
  • A strong admiration and adoration for the other sex’s parent

However, it is important to remember that just because a male child shows hostility towards his father or a female child towards her mother, this does not guarantee that the child has an Oedipus complex. 

A parent may be wary of the following behavior in children:

  • A boy may act possessive towards his mother and tell his father not to touch her.
  • A girl child may say that she wants to marry her father when she grows up.
  • A boy may behave and act like his father figure or a girl like his mother when they are not around.
  • The boy doesn’t want to leave the mother and may cry or show deep affection for her.
  • Feels protected when their opposite-sex parent is around them.
  • Demands attention and love from opposite-sex parents.

Signs of Oedipus complex in adult life

In some cases, the symptoms of the Oedipus complex may not be prevalent in childhood. They may appear later in adult life only.

In these cases, the adult may have extreme hatred towards their opposite-sex parent, and be overly attached to their same-sex parent.

In some cases, the individuals seek romantic relationships where their partner has the characteristics of their opposite-sex parent.

Science-backed research has proved that men who had close emotional and attachment styles with their mothers always had happy relationships in adult life. 

Freud believed that fixation in the phallic stage of development always harbors a fantasy of closeness with the mother. 

Thus, when boys become adult males, they show a close affinity with older women. Sometimes, they tend to have relationships with women who are older than them. 

This is nothing but an unconscious wish of being close to a mother figure, a symbol of trust, faith, and security for the person throughout life.

The psychosexual developmental stages and Oedipus complex

According to the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud, the personality development in a child passes through five stages of development.

This is commonly known as the theory of psychosexual development.

These five stages are marked with conflict and developmental tasks that need to be mastered in order to move successfully to the next stage. 

These stages are similar in many ways to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development.

The key to understanding these stages is to know what is meant by libido.

In simple terms, libido means sexual desires.

During the course of growth, a child becomes aware of certain areas of his or her body. These are known as erogenous zones. These zones can cause pleasure or pain, or both.

According to Freud’s theory, in each stage of psychosexual development, the libido is expressed in a different way, and through different parts of the body.

It is worth noting that Freud’s theory of psychosexual development is also closely related to his psychoanalytic theory of personality growth.

While describing child development, Freud stated that the first five years of life are crucial in determining the adult personality when the child grows up.

Freud divided the human personality into three components – id, ego, and superego.

  1. Id: This is the most primitive part of one’s personality that controls all basic human urges, including sexual urges.
  2. Ego: This component ensures that the id’s urges are satisfied in a realistic, safe, and socially acceptable manner.
  3. Superego: This part of the personality is concerned with morals and standards that a person learns throughout the course of life.

Brief description of the stages

Now let us come back to the concept of psychosexual development.

Freud said that each of the stages of psychosexual development is related to some sort of conflict. 

The ego and superego must work together to resolve this conflict each time so that the individual can proceed to the next stage.

Now, what are these stages? Let us have a look. You will not clearly understand the Oedipus complex without knowing the nature of these five stages.

1. Oral stage (Infancy to 18 months)

The erogenous zone of this stage is the mouth. The mouth is used for eating, thus actions like sucking, and chewing food gives oral stimulation of the lips and oral cavity. 

The baby is dependent on the mother and other caregivers to meet bodily needs like hunger and thirst.

Freud believed that if the caregivers give enough attention to the baby and the baby is happy and satisfied, they will pass on to the next stage successfully.

However, if there is fixation in the stage, conflicts arise and lead to an unsuccessful attempt to move in a healthy manner to the next stage, the anal stage.

The most important conflict of this stage is weaning, a process where the child has to become self-dependent and leave parental support. 

If they become self-sufficient, there is no conflict. It got mastered successfully. But if the weaning is not proper, then fixation occurs.

Freud believed that any kind of oral fixations can make a person dependent and aggressive when they become adults.

The child is fixated with oral pleasures such as sucking, licking, biting, etc. if their basic needs are not met or there is fixation in the stage.

Later on bad habits such as smoking, drinking, or any other habits that involve stimulations of the mouth can happen.

2. Anal stage (18 months to 3 years) 

In this stage, the libido is focused on the anus. The child may find pleasure in withholding feces or defecating.

According to Sigmund Freud, the anal stage begins at 1 year 6 months and continues till age 3.

In this phase, the child either masters the action of bowel and bladder control or does it poorly. This means that toilet training is the major task of this stage.

If bowel and bladder control are mastered, then the child becomes independent and develops a sense of accomplishment. 

Freud noted that the success in this stage depends on how parents consider or approach this skilled mastery at home. 

Parents who use praise their children for using the toilet at the right time help the child to feel accomplished. 

The child feels capable and confident. But if the parent criticizes, punishes, or shames the child for any accidents, will rear fearful, shy, and guilt-prone adults.

Criticism at this stage leads to fixation.

The child either turns into anal-retentive types by withholding their bodily needs or becomes anal-expulsive by losing control over bladder or bowel movement.

In both cases, Freud noted that successful resolution of conflict fails to occur. Thus anal-retentive types may become too orderly, obsessive, or rigid personalities.

The anal-expulsion types turn into messy and destructive personalities.

3. Phallic stage (3-5 years)

The child’s libido is centered on their genitalia in this stage. It is in this stage that the child becomes aware of their own sexual identity.

This is also the phase that is associated with the development of the Oedipus complex.

They begin to understand the differences between boys and girls.

Freud pointed out that in the phallic stage; boys demand their mother’s love, affection, and attention.

They compete with their fathers to seek their mother’s wholehearted attention.

From this, comes the concept of the Oedipus complex and Electra complex. The male child also possesses an unconscious desire to remain close to the mother. 

The female child feels that the mother is her rival who is competing with her for the father’s affection. 

Freud believed that the successful resolution of the Oedipus and Electra complex is needed for the proper growth of personality. 

Otherwise, fixations would occur and lead to several forms of sexually inappropriate behavior in adulthood.

4. Latency stage (6 years to puberty)

In this stage, the libido remains dormant, and no further psychosexual development takes place. This stage contributes to the development of the superego.

The child starts to learn the moral conduct of behavior. They realize that certain behaviors are acceptable in society and others are not.

It is a calm stage where sexual energies are directed through hobbies, studies, and other social activities. The child gets busy developing other aspects of life.

The latency stage is a timeline where sexual energy or libido is either repressed or sublimated for developing intellectual and social pursuits.

It is in a dormant state only, but still present in the child.

Any type of fixation in the latency stage leads to poor interpersonal relationships in adulthood.

5. Genital stage (Puberty to adulthood): 

This stage witnesses the development of mature and healthy sexual interests. Individuals also start becoming attracted to members of the opposite sex.

The puberty stage marks the coming back of sexual energies. At this stage, both the ego and the superego are functioning fully.

Thus, behavior gets modified according to reality principles and is guided by moral conscience.

Boys get attracted to girls and vice versa. They know what forms of sexual behaviors are acceptable in society and what is not.

The successful resolution of conflicts at this stage leads to a sense of balance of sexual urges to the regulations of the society.

Fixation in psychosocial stages of development

According to Freud, if there are unresolved internal conflicts in any of these phases, it may hinder the proper development of a healthy personality.

Unresolved internal conflicts of the phallic stage give rise to the Oedipus complex.

In a male child, this happens because the child develops pleasurable desires towards his mother. He becomes extremely possessive towards his mother and even wants to marry her.

The child also wants to get rid of his father.

However, he is afraid that if his father finds out about his feelings toward his mother, he would be castrated. This is popularly known as castration anxiety.

To resolve this issue, the child then internally goes on to adopt the attitudes and behavior of his father. This happens because the child identifies with his father.

As a result of this identification, the boy takes on the male gender role and adopts a strong superego.

Female Oedipus complex (Electra complex)

As we have mentioned before, Freud claimed that the Oedipus complex occurs in both males and females.

However, he himself suggested that it was mainly manifested in a male children.

Carl Jung, who was a Swiss psychiatrist as well as a psychoanalyst, and also a close associate of Freud, disagreed with him.

According to Jung, the Oedipus complex is also manifested in a female child. He suggested a name for it which is popularly known as the Electra complex.

This can be considered a female counterpart of the Oedipus complex.

However, Freud did not at all comply with Jung’s proposal. He was of the notion that both the male and the female child considered their mother or mother figure as their first love object.

The sole reason for this, according to Freud, was that a mother is a primary source of fulfilling a child’s needs from birth. This act of need fulfillment is applicable to both the sexes.

A brief history of the origin of the Electra complex

The term “Electra complex” has its roots in Greek mythology, just like the Oedipus complex.

According to the Greek myth, Electra was the daughter of King Agamemnon. She avenged the murder of her father by urging her brother to kill their mother and her lover.

A female child experiencing Electra complex considers her father as her love object. Simultaneously, she holds feelings of jealousy toward her mother. 

The female child realizes that she does not have a penis and blames her mother for it. This is the main cause of the development of penis envy. 

The issue of penis envy is resolved when the girl gives birth to a male child in adulthood, and also when she represses her feelings of desire towards her father.

For successful resolution of the Electra complex, the girl also identifies herself with her mother and takes on a female gender role.

Causes of Oedipus complex

In a previous section, when we discussed Freud’s psychosexual and psychoanalytic theories, we mentioned that each stage of psychosexual development is associated with a conflict.

If there are unresolved conflicts in any of the stages, it may hamper the personality development of an individual.

The third stage out of the five stages of psychosexual development is the phallic stage.

Freud suggested that the unresolved conflicts in the phallic stage are related to the development of the Oedipus complex.

The causes of the Oedipus complex can be roughly divided into two broad categories:

1. Castration anxiety

As already discussed in a previous section, castration anxiety occurs when a male child is afraid that his father will castrate him because of his love and affection for his mother. 

For female children, this manifests as ‘penis envy’, where a girl can blame her mother because of the fact that she herself does not have a penis.

2. The role of the superego

The superego is one of the three components of human personality as put forth by Freud.

He stated that the formation of the superego can lead to the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex. 

In male children, the superego acts as a representation of the father figure. Similarly, in the case of female children, the superego helps to represent their mother. 

This can help the child incorporate the traits and characteristics of their same-sex parent.

It is worth mentioning here that many psychologists consider Freud’s theories to be controversial, and do not necessarily agree with them.

Freud believed that if the superego is not well developed and is overpowered by the Id that seeks pleasure and avoids pain, then the male child will develop envy against the father. 

Since his moral conscience is yet to develop, he will seek pleasure. His life will be dominated by the pleasure principle, an accompaniment of Id.

Thus, Freud noted that lack of, or poor development of the superego leads to the Oedipus complex.

Other theories that support the Oedipus complex

Many other psychologists have proposed other theories to explain the behaviors as described by the Oedipus complex.

One of the foremost of these theories is the Attachment Theory.

The theory of Attachment

British psychoanalyst John Bowlby first proposed the attachment theory in the 1950s.

American psychologist Mary Ainsworth later helped to refine this theory through her works.

According to this theory, children instinctually believe that they need their primary caregivers to survive.

Children eventually get attached to their mother or father depending on how much security each parent provides.

This, in a way, relates to Freud’s theory. If the mother is the primary caregiver, both the male and female children could grow to be fixated with her.

The mother is seen by the child as a source of nourishment and psychological security. Thus, the theory suggests that healthy attachment with the mother is normal for both sexes.

Oedipus complex examples

You can see many subtle examples of the Oedipus complex operating in your child’s behavior.

All these behaviors are the manifestations of repressed wishes to get closer to the opposite sex parent. 

It is noteworthy that all these behaviors are not sexual but may indicate a deep longing for the parent’s love and affection. It may not indicate any sexual desires at all.

  • You may see your son pushing his father if he tries to touch you or cuddle you.
  • He may not leave you while others are around, at times extreme clinginess and gummy behaviors.
  • Your child becomes upset when left alone somewhere, with the father or other caregivers.
  • Daughters may see their fathers as brave and strong. They may try to imitate their father’s actions also.
  • You may see signs of stranger anxiety or separation anxiety if you leave your child with other caregivers.

Oedipus’s complex and the relationships in later life

The concept of the Oedipus complex was criticized for its too much emphasis on sexuality and manifestations of sexual energy at the different stages of development.

As already discussed, fixations in any one of the stages can impact relationships in adulthood.

Freud noted that children who lacked care and affection in the early years of their life became shy, timid, and emotionally needy.

This led to an emotional dependency on partners in later life, not for all but for many of them. Lack of emotional attachment can make you needy for affection. 

You may become clingy in your relationships and develop feelings of jealousy and resentment if you do not have what you have wished for in the relationship.

When you are seeking out adult relationships, you will choose to be with someone who is affectionate and kind. 

This is a common phenomenon. But lack of these basic love gestures can make you feel insecure in the relationship.

Modern studies also proved that secure attachments as children can impact adult relationships to a great extent.

Is Oedipus’s complex real and does it really exists?

In course of our discussions on the Oedipus complex, we should keep one thing in mind. There is very little if any, scientific evidence to prove if the Oedipus complex is real or not.

The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which is used by clinicians and psychologists worldwide to diagnose psychological disorders, does not recognize the Oedipus complex as a psychological disorder.

However, Freud himself suggested the Little Hans case study, published in 1909, as an example of the Oedipus complex.

Freud’s case study led to the theory of the Oedipus complex

The Austrian child Herbert Graf, also known as Hans, was a five-year-old boy at the time when his case was diagnosed by Freud.

Hans once witnessed a male horse collapse while pulling a heavy cart. This somehow left a traumatic effect on the little boy.

Ever since this incident, he developed a fixation on male genitalia, and also a fear of horses.

He also felt uneasy when his mother was not around and felt uncomfortable being with his father.

Hans also complained of having a strange dream. He initially saw two giraffes. One of them was sick and collapsed on the floor, while the other was healthy.

In his dream, he wanted to go to the giraffe that had collapsed on the floor. However, this giraffe went away from him. But the healthier one called out to him.

Freud interpreted this dream as Hans having intense attraction toward his mother, who was represented by the giraffe that had collapsed on the floor.

The healthy giraffe represented his father, who did not want Hans to be with his mother.

According to Freud, Hans was also afraid that his father would castrate him. This was symbolized by his fear of horses.

However, many other psychologists do not agree with Freud’s interpretation of Herbert’s case.

Several criticisms of Freud’s theories are centered on the fact that Freud originally proposed his theory only for males, and later extended it to females, without proper evidence.

Moreover, Freud’s theories suggest that homosexuality is an abnormal occurrence. But modern science does not agree with this view.

As such, there is great debate among psychologists as to whether the Oedipus complex is real or not.

Much like some other theories proposed by Freud, the Oedipus complex also remains a subject of controversy.

How to treat the Oedipus complex?

There can be several ways to treat Oedipus complex in childhood.

1. Developing moral codes of conduct

Psychologists mostly focus on guiding the child to develop the superego which takes place after the successful resolution of inner conflicts.

Superego is the moral guide of one’s personality. Developing this means the child becomes aware of their unacceptable wishes and desires. 

It makes them aware that the mother is the source of security and as such, they should develop a healthy and nurturing relationship with them.

2. Resolution of conflicts that arises in the phallic stage

As we have learned through our discussions in the previous section, the internal conflicts within a child must be resolved in order to successfully treat the Oedipus complex. 

Psychoanalysis is a form of therapy that is used for these purposes only. 

Through psychoanalysis, clinical psychologists mainly focus on resolving conflicts from childhood. 

As we have mentioned before, many psychologists and researchers often express doubt about the existence of the Oedipus complex.

The main reason for this is that the topic of psychosexual development is controversial.

But some psychologists and researchers who specialize in psychoanalysis are indeed blind followers of the theory put forth by Freud.

These psychologists usually focus on helping a child to identify with the same-sex parent more. 

3. Family therapy

Another treatment option that can be useful for this purpose is family therapy. As the name suggests, this is another type of therapy that is administered by a clinical psychologist.

The main aim of this form of therapy is to foster the development of a healthy sexual identity in the child through healthy and conducive family bonding with both the parents.

Resolution of Oedipus complex

Based on Freud’s theory, children with Oedipus complexes are often unable to develop their superego. 

Superego is an inner moral authority and maintains a balance between the Id which is a primal instinct as mentioned earlier with the demands and moral codes of the society.

According to Freud, if a male child is able to develop a healthy bond with a father figure, then it will be possible for him to suppress his desirable feelings for his mother.

The defense mechanism termed “identification” comes into play here. This basically means that child will begin to identify himself with his father.

This leads to the successful resolution of the issue of the Oedipus complex. 

Apart from therapy, certain external influences can also help in treating the Oedipus complex.

These include religious preaching as well as rules and regulations that make up the norms of society and culture. 

As a result of identification as well as external influences, the child develops a sense of right and wrong.

In other terms, the conscience of a child develops. This conscience guides the child in every major step or decision he takes in life. 

What happens if the Oedipus complex is not resolved?

As we have already mentioned before, Freud’s theory of psychosexual development suggests that a child must overcome his or her internal conflicts at every stage of psychosexual development.

If the conflict remains unresolved at any stage, this can lead to mental health problems at a later stage in life.

This applies to the particular case of the Oedipus complex as well. If left unresolved, the Oedipus complex leads to a peculiar case of unhealthy fixation in the individual.

Remember, when we were discussing the symptoms of the Oedipus complex, we mentioned signs of the Oedipus complex in an adult? Can you think about why the Oedipus complex develops in an adult?

The simple answer is that it was not resolved in the childhood of that individual.

Freud said that boys, for whom the Oedipus complex is not resolved in childhood, grow up to become ‘mother-fixated.’

American pediatrician Benjamin Spock has done further extensive work in this area. However, that is beyond the scope of discussion for this topic.

Similar to the case of boys, girls who do not resolve the Oedipus complex, grow up to be father-fixated.

In the case of both genders, when the child grows up, he or she looks for a romantic partner who would have traits or features resembling their own opposite-sex parent. 

Naturally, this leads to challenges in achieving mature adult romantic relationships.

If left unresolved in childhood, it can be particularly difficult to find a proper diagnosis or treatment for the Oedipus complex in an adult.

However, psychoanalysis remains one of the most effective ways of dealing with this issue. 

As mentioned before, psychoanalysis is a medically reviewed, scientifically proven, and widely accepted form of therapy.

So, individuals suffering from the Oedipus complex can definitely benefit from this.

If you, as a parent, feel that your child may be suffering from the Oedipus complex, do not be hesitant to seek medical advice from a mental health professional.

Critical synopsis of Oedipus complex

There are four different points of criticism against Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages and the Oedipus complex.

  • Freud tried to explain the Oedipus complex mainly on the basis of male sexual identity. Later on, his reference to the Electra complex was devoid of scientific evidence.
  • We cannot prove the Oedipus complex scientifically. There is a lack of scientific research. Most of the case histories were done on patients’ responses. So subjectivity may operate in the process of data collection.
  • No reference was there regarding statistical analysis of data that Freud inferred from his studies of the oedipal complex.
  • The future predictions of behavior based on fixations in any one of the stages are difficult to prove. The time gap between childhood and adulthood is long. 

Thus, new experiences that the person receives during this time gap also contribute to behavior change.

The cause and effect relationship between a childhood experience and its effect in adulthood was never proved by Sigmund Freud. 

Thus, the theory lacked science-backed research and at times appears irrelevant in proving the varied nature of human behavior.

The video link shared below shows the concept of the Oedipus complex vividly. Do check out the link.

Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’

To end, we can say that the Oedipus complex will continue to usher criticism from experts throughout human history.

The theory will remain the center of discussion and debate because of its lack of scientific evidence. There will be differing views on its credibility. 

Maybe, it will be impossible to prove the various fixations and resolution of conflicts that Freud spoke about in the theory because of the complicated world we live in today.

There are so many factors that are operating in the union to make a difference in a person’s psychological state of existence.

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