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Oedipus Complex

Oedipus Complex
Sigmund Freud's theory of Oedipus complex endeavored to describe the behavior of children as they reach the phallic stage. Focusing more on the male child, it discussed how a child is attracted to his mother and feel jealous of the same-sex parent.
Rohini Mohan
Last Updated: Dec 10, 2017
According to Greek mythology, it was prophesied that Oedipus would unknowingly kill his true father and unintentionally marry his mother, and thus ruin his kingdom and family.
The basis of the Oedipus mythology, was used by the famous psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud  in his work; the Interpretation of Dreams. He developed the concept while psychoanalyzing a male patient who desired the mother and was jealous of the father. Freud's theory of infantile sexuality described Oedipus complex as a state of awareness and psychosexual development.
What is the Oedipus Complex?
The term Oedipus complex was coined by Sigmund Freud in the psychoanalytic theory. In this theory, he claimed that Oedipal complex occurs in children in the phallic stage of psychosexual development, which takes place during the ages of three and five. The phallic stage plays a vital role in establishing the child's sexual identity. Freud's five stage of psychosexual development are:
  1. the Oral
  2. the Anal
  3. the Phallic
  4. the Latent
  5. the Genital
According to Freud, in the phallic stage the desire or libido of children is centered upon the genitalia. While in this stage, children become aware of their genitals and gender differences as well as the difference between male and females. Freud also stated that, this awareness alters the parent-child relationship. During the phallic stage, the male child begins to desire his mother sexually and treats the father as a rival.
Freud stated that the phallic stage gradually subsides and ends when the child begins to identify and associate with his father and other individuals of the same-sex. Thereafter, the child's sexual instincts for his mother begin to wane and are eventually repressed. Freud also claimed that, it is easier for children to cope with the phallic stage if they share a loving, nurturing, and balanced relationship with both the parents.
Id :  According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, id is the unorganized aspect of any personality which is merely aware of its immediate needs and instincts, and works according to the pleasure principal. It is capable of experiencing opposing impulses without needing to refute or suppress any of the impulses in order to derive logic. The id is innate and present from birth, and is displayed by our unconscious and irrational impulses, expressions, motivations, and actions. Therefore, during the phallic stage, the child's id causes him to be jealous of his father and view him as a potential threat. The child treats the father as a competitor who must be prevented from gaining the mother's affection.
Ego Freudian psychoanalytic theory defines ego as the part of the personality that tries to attain the impulses and desires of the id through realistic methods. The ego tries to mediate and rationalize the impulses of the id in order to ease the conflict in the personality. Therefore, here in the Oedipus complex, the ego rationalizes with the impulses of the child's id and makes him realize that the father is stronger and not a competitor.
Castration Anxiety : Freud goes onto explain that, once the ego is well-established, the child experiences 'Castration Anxiety'; the fear of being emasculated. Thus, the boy feels threatened and is uncertain of his father's role in the family. The child begins to repress his feelings for his mother as a defense mechanism, because of which the conflict between his id and ego subside.
Superego : According to Freud, the superego is the conscience or moral compass of a personality. It also maintains our feelings of right, wrong, and guilt. Therefore, the child begins to identify with the father and tries to emulate his characteristics. According to Freud, the child also experiences guilt. In Freud's published work, 'The Ego and the Id' (1923) he states that - "The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on-in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt."
Freud also claimed that in case the child's sense of competition with his father does not resolve, it could lead to phallic stage fixation. Such a fixation unless resolved through the development of infantile superego, can cause the child to grow into an aggressive, vain, and extremely ambitious adult.
Electra Complex
Even though, Freud theorized the Oedipus complex for both boys and girls, he later segregated girls and boys by proposing the feminine Oedipus attitude, which was modified by Freud's student Carl Jung as Electra complex.
The Electra Complex is the Oedipus complex for girls. This complex makes the daughter portray tendencies of 'Penis Envy'- whereby she is attracted to her father and wishes to have his affection. She also begins to view her mother as a competitor.
While in the phallic stage, the girl's id realizes that it cannot possess the mother because of a lack of penis and therefore focuses her affection upon her father. This directing of sexual desires upon the opposite sex plays a vital role in developing the girl's ego or sexual identity, and paving the path for heterosexual femininity. Once the girl's phallic stage is over, her erogenous zone shifts to the adult vagina from the infantile clitoris. Freud also claimed that a girl's negative Oedipus complex is comparatively more intense than the male Oedipus complex.
According to Freud, balanced and harmonious upbringing of the girl during her phallic stage is of extreme importance, in order to ensure that the girl begins to identify with her mother. Her superego develops and allows her to internalize and comply with morality as well as feel guilt, so that she can differentiate between right and wrong.
The theory of Oedipus complex is fraught with criticism and controversy. While some psychoanalysts choose to refute the theory in its entirety, there are others who have accepted its universality to an extent.