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What Is an Oedipal Complex?

A Closer Look at One of Freud's Most Controversial Ideas

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The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, 1784.

Bénigne Gagneraux, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Definition:

The Oedipal complex is a term used by Sigmund Freud in his theory of psychosexual stages of development to describe a boy's feelings of desire for his mother and jealously and anger towards his father. Essentially, a boy feels like he is in competition with his father for possession of his mother. He views his father as a rival for her attentions and affections.

Understanding the Oedipus Complex

According to Freud, the boy wishes to possess his mother and replace his father, who the child views as a rival for the mother's affections. The Oedipal complex occurs in the phallic stage of psychosexual development between the ages of three and five. The phallic stage serves as an important point in the formation of sexual identity. The analogous stage for girls is known as the Electra complex in which girls feel desire for their fathers and jealousy of their mothers.

Freud first proposed the concept of the Oedipal complex in his 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams, although he did not formally begin using the term Oedipus complex until the year 1910. The term was named after the character in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother.

Resolving the Oedipus Complex

In order to develop into a successful adult with a health identity, the child must identify with the same-sex parent in order to resolve the conflict. Freud suggested that while the primal id wants to eliminate the father, the more realistic ego knows that the father is much stronger.

According to Freud, the boy then experiences what he called castration anxiety - a fear of both literal and figurative emasculation. Freud believed that as the child becomes aware of the physical differences between males and females, he assumes that the female's penis has been removed and that his father will also castrate him as a punishment for desiring his mother.

In order to resolve the conflict, the boy then identifies with his father. It is at this point that the super-ego is formed. The super-ego becomes a sort of inner moral authority, an internalization of the father figure that strives to suppress the urges of the id and make the ego act upon these idealistic standards.

In The Ego and the Id, Freud explained, "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."

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References

Freud, S. (1924): The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. Standard Edition, 19:172–179

Freud, S. (1949). The Ego and the id. The Hogarth Press Ltd. London.

Freud, S. (1956). On Sexuality. Penguin Books Ltd.

 

Also Known As: Oedipal complex, Oedipus complex

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