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Oedipus Complex: Breaking Down Sigmund Freud's Most Twisted Theory
oedipus
Emotional Health

Oedipus Complex: Breaking Down Sigmund Freud's Most Twisted Theory

The controversial theory of development has been heavily criticized for a good reason.

Diving into the murky depths of the human psyche is guaranteed to unearth details that remain in the murky depths for a reason. They’re ugly, unsettling, or outright bizarre. The role of psychology, however, is to illuminate these psychological processes as objectively as possible, to understand how the human mind operates. There’s no space for shyness in this exploration.

RELATED: 20 Sigmund Freud Quotes to Push You to Build a Stronger Character

Sigmund Freud, a leading pioneer of depth psychology, certainly wasn’t shy when it came to his theories. He contributed significant amounts to the field, is one of the greatest thinkers of the last few centuries, and mapped uncharted territory. But despite many of his insights becoming part of culture, from Freudian slips to repression, others have been heavily criticized.


Freud’s map of the unconscious mind includes theories such as penis envy — a term given to women who, Freud believed, resented their mothers for failing to give them a penis and “sending them into the world so insufficiently equipped.” But that’s not the most disturbing. The Oedipus complex is a theory of development that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones.

Many have questioned it, and even Freud's own students found it so difficult to digest, they created different models of development to find an acceptable alternative. But what exactly is the Oedipus complex? Let’s jump straight into it.

What is the Oedipus Complex?

child on swing

Freud’s Oedipuscomplex, sometimes called the oedipal complex, is a theory that children desire to possess and have sex with their opposite-sex parent, and experience jealousy and anger towards their same-sex parent. The theory sits within Freud’s psychosexual stages of development. Freud believed a child’s development related to a subconscious desire for pleasure, focused on different regions of the body: 

  • Oral stage (birth to 18 months)
  • Anal stage (18 months to three years)
  • Phallic stage (three to five)
  • Latency (five to 12)
  • Genital (12 to adulthood)

Freud identified that the Oedipus complex is integral to the phallic stage, between the ages of three and five. Much of his theory, outlined in a paper from 1909, was based upon working with a small boy, known as Little Hans, who had a fear of horses that Freud believed came from internalized anger. According to Freud, because this incestuous drive is both a cause of shame and risks a violent reaction from the same-sex parent, the desire is repressed.

Although not fully aware, the impulse still has a big impact on development and influences the child’s behavior from the subconscious mind.

Oedipus vs. Electra Complex

Freud believed the Oedipus complex applied to boys and girls, but that the female equivalent was penis envy, mentioned above. That wouldn’t be the first time his approach to women’s psychology was highly flawed. Freud was challenged, not only by his protege Carl Jung, who identified the Electra complex to describe the female equivalent, but even by his female students, such as Karen Horney, who founded the neo-Freudian movement alongside Alfred Adler.

The Origin of Oedipus

oedipus 2

If all of this sounds a little like a Greek myth, you wouldn’t be wrong. Freud, who discovered an Oedipus complex within himself, based the term on Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, a tragedy about a king who is cursed to kill his father and make love to his mother. Upon his birth, his father receives an oracle that his new son will end up killing him. Having sent him away, Oedipus unwittingly returns years later, to challenge the throne, and take his mother as his wife.

Once the truth is revealed, it’s too much to bear. Oedipus’ mother kills herself, whilst Oedipus himself gouges out his eyes. In Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote about the myth, saying:

“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.”

The Consequences of the Oedipus Complex

therapy session

Despite the grotesque imagery of the story it's based upon and the taboo nature of incest, Freud believed the Oedipal complex to be a normal part of childhood. Each stage in Freud’s psychosexual model has to be navigated successfully for healthy development into adulthood. To understand the correct context for the Oedipus complex, we have to look at Freud’s model of the ego, id, and superego:

  • The id is the source of bodily needs, in particular aggression and sexual desire, which Freud calls the “dark, inaccessible part of our personality.”
  • The superego contradicts the id, striving for moral perfection, and is internalized through the culture and environment.
  • The ego mediates between the desires of the id and the perfectionism of the superego.

Within the Oedipal complex, the instinctive and primal urge of the id wishes to replace the same-sex parent. However, the ego, the part of the psyche that is more rational and reasoned, attempts to find a resolution. This results in developing a strong bond with the same-sex parent, which supports the development of the superego, or conscience. The child then chooses the same-sex parent as a role model, rather than a rival.

RELATED: What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Freud proposed that without this healthy integration, there would be consequences in adult life. That would lead to the inability to form healthy relationships, including dysfunctional ways of relating to both men and women. Psychoanalysis was essential to overcome these challenges. Controversially, at the time of the theory, Freud suggested homosexuality was a consequence of not navigating the Oedipus complex.

Is the Oedipus Complex a Valid Theory?

Freud toy

In diving into the murky depths of the psyche, Sigmund Freud unearthed both profound knowledge and theories that were wide of the mark. A product of his time, Freud’s attitude towards women, and his lack of compassion or understanding, tainted his work. Since the time of Freud’s theory, there has been little in the way of empirical evidence to support the validity of the Oedipus complex as a universal phenomenon.

Freud’s overt focus on sexuality as integral to development has been challenged, too. It’s not widely recognized that children are innately sexual from a young age, and the theory has been critiqued as particularly risky. Carl Jung, a student of Freud who eventually branched into his own style of psychology, accused Freud of “projecting an observation from adult life onto the child’s mind.”

In the paper Freud’s Oedipus Complex in the #MeToo Era, psychologist Renée Spencer expresses concern that the theory runs the risk of “re-traumatizing sexual abuse victims” by making the assumption that children have unconscious sexual desires. Stronger criticisms claim Freud falsely created the Oedipus complex because he mistakenly thought true accounts of sexual abuse and trauma were instead fantasies.

In part, it’s not Freud’s fault that his theories have stood the test of time. Evolution is the nature of science, and many great minds have built upon Freud’s work. For all the criticism, fortunately, there are now many alternatives to Freud's model.

What Are the Modern Developmental Theories?

little boy hugging little girl in an open field

Erik Erikson, who was a student of Freud’s daughter, Anna, went on to develop the psychosocial stages of development. In contrast to sexuality being the cornerstone of development, Erikson believed that stages of development continued all throughout life, and were the result of conflict between individual and social needs. Erikson replaces Freud’s phallic stage with stage three of his model, between the ages of three and five — initiative vs. guilt.

For Erikson, this stage of development occurs when children start playing with friends and learn how to navigate games, communication, and interpersonal challenges. Learning how to take initiative is built at this stage. Guilt, although useful in knowing how to treat others, has to be experienced in a healthy balance in order for healthy development to occur.

Perhaps even more relevant to Erikson’s model is attachment theory, proposed by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. The theory, which has built a lot of credit in recent years, suggests that early relationships with caregivers are significant in how attachment styles are developed later in life — all without patricide or incest.

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