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Breaking Down Sigmund Freud's Oedipus Complex Theory

Breaking Down Sigmund Freud's Oedipus Complex Theory

What's behind the famous psychoanalyst's taboo theory?

Psychological theory? Greek tragedy? Kinky topic of conversation? What exactly is the Oedipus Complex and why do you need to know about it?

After you read this article, you’ll know all about the origin of the term and how much weight you should give the anciently-named concept that actually dates back from the early 1900s.

And that knowledge might just earn you a point on trivia night.

What is the Oedipus Complex?

The Warburg Institute (University of London)

Simply put, the Oedipus Complex is a psychoanalytic theory put forth by the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) Sigmund Freud.

Freud believed that all children go through a developmental stage where they experience sexual attraction to their opposite sex parent.

These incestuous emotions are natural, he claimed, and lead to the child’s behavior reflecting competition with the same sex parent.

The Oedipus Complex, or Oedipal Complex, goes beyond the wish of lots of little boys and girls to marry their mother or their father. And while the child may repress these thoughts, Freud claimed they are still there and have to be resolved.

How Does It Work?

Freud viewed child development through the lens of five psychosexual stages.

The third stage, called the Phallic Stage, occurs when the child is between the ages of three and six years old. It is during this stage, Freud insisted, that children develop a rivalry with the same sex parent. They are envious of that parent’s relationship with the other. They want to oust the same sex parent so that they can have the full attention of the opposite sex parent.

At the same time, Freud continued, young boys are stricken with a “castration anxiety”—that is, they fear their fathers will punish them for their attraction to their mothers and the resulting rivalry.

If this is all “natural”, you may be asking yourself, how do children move past it?

To cope with this castration anxiety, children start to identify with their same sex parent, eventually seeing them as a role model and pushing aside the sexual attraction to the same sex parent. This is where Freud’s term “superego” comes in. The superego is the moral compass. Once the superego kicks in and moves the child to identify with the same sex parent, the Oedipal feelings are repressed and the conflict is solved.

Instead, children begin to substitute those feelings with sexual feelings for other women (or men, in the case of girls—although keep reading for more on Freud’s lack of attention to female child development). Once those sexual feelings for the same sex parent are resolved, the child can move on in his development and look forward to healthy sexual and romantic relationships in the future.

Who's Behind the Oedipus Complex?

There’s been a lot of talk about Sigmund Freud up until this point, but if you can’t stop thinking of a certain Greek tragedy when you hear the term Oedipal Complex, you’re not wrong. Although Freud put forth his theory in 1899, it wasn’t until a few years later that he coined the term Oedipus Complex, or Oedipal Complex, inspired by a certain writer named Sophocles.

Sigmund Freud

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Freud Museum London

In 1899, Sigmund Freud published a book called Interpretation of Dreams. It shocked readers with its theory that dreams follow a logic and that this logic can be interpreted to shed light on the unconscious mind and its huge role in human development. It also broke childhood development specifically into psychosexual stages and attempted to show how children’s dreams reflect these stages.

The theory Freud would become most famous for was the one he considered pivotal to social achievement. This all-important process took place during a child’s Phallic Stage, when he or she is three to five years old. 

During this time, according to Freud, the child experiences sexual attraction to the opposite sex parent and is in conflict with the same sex parent. As they get older, they naturally repress these feelings. If the child maintains a healthy relationship with their parents during this period, they pass through the stage with no problems. But if the relationship is traumatic or unhealthy, it sets the child up for problems later in life.


Oedipus is also a character in Greek myth. The playwright Sophocles wrote his story as a trilogy: Oedipus Rex (or, Oedipus the King), Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone. The first is the most famous in psychology and popular culture; although, perhaps because of its scandalous nature that’s impossible to skim over, it’s not the one most often taught in high school classrooms. That honor goes to Antigone—perhaps because suicide and fratricide are more palatable to our North American minds than incestuous activity.

In Oedipus Rex, a prophecy is made to his royal parents when the title character is born: The baby will kill his father and marry his mother. In order to prevent this from happening, the king and queen of Thebes order the baby to be killed. Instead, a slave leaves the baby Oedipus on the side of a mountain, where he is later rescued by a shepherd who gives him to another royal couple in a neighbouring city. 

You can probably see where this is going, but here’s the short version. A young adult Oedipus receives the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. He does not know that he is adopted, so in order to prevent this from happening, he runs away—straight to Thebes.
On the way, an incident of road rage results in him unwittingly killing his birth father. When he arrives in Thebes, he finds that the Sphinx is guarding the city and trapping it in a plague. Oedipus solves the creature’s riddle, releasing the city, and is rewarded by the queen’s—his birth mother’s—hand in marriage. The two marry, have several children, and live happily ever after…until they discover what’s happened. Then, there’s a suicide and eye-gouging and banishment. Typical Greek tragedy.

Freud’s theory got its name from the tragic Greek hero who killed his father and married his mother.

Consequences of the Oedipus Complex

oedipus 2
The Warburg Institute (University of London)

Freud’s theory was controversial in its time and it’s still controversial today. In the early 1900s, it took the world by storm and was obsessively discussed in psychoanalytical forums and living rooms alike. Freud claimed that his theory alone “would give [psychoanalysis] a claim to be included among the precious new acquisitions of mankind.”

One consequence of Freud’s theory is that laser focus was given to children’s sexual development. Freud claimed that children go through childhood with sexual fixations on different parts of the body. He said that their sexual fixations at different points in their development can explain their behavior during those periods. 

Another consequence of Freud’s Oedipal Complex was support for those who called homosexuality a deviant behavior. Freud believed that homosexuality is a result of an unresolved Oedipus Complex, a deviation from normal sexual development.

Oedipus vs. Electra Complex

Freud originally intended for his Oedipal Complex to encompass both boys and girls; but the truth his, he focused far more on boys and admitted to knowing little about girls’ childhood development. 

Enter Carl Jung, Freud’s protégé who, as he moved forward in the world of psychoanalysis, disagreed more and more with his mentor. It was Carl Jung who proposed the Electra Complex—basically the “Oedipus Complex for Girls”. The Electra Complex also derives its name from Greek myth: Electra killed her mother to avenge her father’s murder.

The Electra Complex differed from the Oedipus Complex in that girls were supposed to be less motivated to identify with their same sex parent; therefore, their resolution of the complex is often less complete. The idea had all sorts of unfavorable implications on women, notably that the female superego was supposed to be weaker than the male one, and therefore, women morally weaker than men. 

Freud also suggested, with his penis envy theory, that all young girls came to a realization that they wished they were boys. Freud believed that girls subconsciously blamed their mothers for their lack of male genitalia, and this made it harder for them to move past the Oedipal stage.

Is the Oedipus Complex Real?

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Getty Images

The real problem with Freud’s Oedipus complex theory is that he never did any empirical studies to prove it. In fact, he provided very little evidence at all and never considered the influence of any cultural or social factors.

So how did Freud explain his theory to the world? Incredibly enough, his theory rested largely on a single case, that of a boy named Herbert Graf. One day, Herbert saw a horse collapse in the street. The traumatic event scarred the little boy and led to a cascade of symptoms: an even stronger attachment to his mother, a fixation on male horse genitalia, and a repeated dream of two giraffes, one healthy and the other weak. In his dream, Herbert carried away the weaker one while the healthy one called out to him.

Herbert’s father was a big believer in Freud’s theories, and so he sought out the famous psychoanalyst. Even though it would later be revealed that Herbert’s father did most of the psychoanalysis himself, it was Freud who used Herbert as his signature example of the Oedipus Complex. Freud reasoned that the boy was experiencing castration anxiety; Herbert was afraid that his father (symbolized for him as a horse) would punish him for his strong attachment to his mother by castrating him. This fear was reflected in the boy’s dreams: the weak giraffe (who Herbert saves) symbolizes his mother, while the healthy giraffe who calls out in jealousy is his father.

In the end, though Freud’s Oedipus Complex had shock-and-awe value, it would come under much criticism.

In 1929, Malinowski studied the Trobriand Islanders society and found that, where the father did not play the role of a son’s disciplinarian, there was no father-son rivalry at all, despite the fact that the father and mother were lovers.

In the mid-1900s, a study by Horney and Thompson found that girls covet men’s superior social status—not their penises. Horney also suggested that men experience womb envy since they can’t bear children.

In 1950, Erikson suggested that Freud overemphasized the role of instinct in personal development. Along with biology, Erikson insisted that social, cultural and historical factors be taken into account.

And in 1975, Hoffman found that girls are better able to resist temptation than boys, squashing the idea of a weaker female superego.

Indeed, Freud’s theories are often found to be outdated and sexist. So while your early relationships may influence your social and sexual development, it’s probably not the best idea to place too much emphasis on the Oedipus Complex.

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