The Oedipus complex is one of the most controversial theories Sigmund Freud developed. Freud was an Austrian neurologist and founder of the concept of psychoanalysis. The Oedipus complex states that young boys see their mothers as a primary object of sexual desire.

This desire then subsequently sparks a rivalry between fathers and sons because young boys want to replace their fathers. Freud names his theory the Oedipus complex after the main character in the Greek tragedy "Oedipus Rex." In the story, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.

Psychosexual Theory

Freud's psychological theories frequently revolved around sex and sexual desires. He believed that humans are born with an instinctual libido. The libido is the source of sexual energy, awareness, and desire. Freud's psychosexual stage theory states that all children, boys, and girls, pass through five stages to develop their sexuality and personality. The five stages are called the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages. The Oedipus complex comes into play during the phallic stage when children are between the ages of 3 and 6 years old.

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Oedipus complex

Freud based his stages of psychosexual theory on the erogenous zones that are the source of libido during each stage of development. He saw the Oedipus complex as a normal aspect of development when a child develops a sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite gender. Freud believed that children who developed an attraction to the parent of the same-sex would grow up to be sexual deviants.

Oedipus complex theory psychosexual ZU_09 / Getty Images


Oedipus Rex

"Oedipus Rex" is considered one of the greatest dramas. The Delphic Oracle warned Oedipus' father Laius that he would be killed by his own son. Laius and his wife Jocasa gave baby Oedipus to a shepherd with instructions to abandon the baby to die. The infant was found by another shepherd and given to King Polybus of Corinth and his wife to raise as their own. "Oedipus Rex" consulted the Oracle at Delphi as a young man. The Oracle told Oedipus that he would kill the "sire who begot him" and defile his mother.

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Prophecy Fulfilled

Oedipus didn't know that he was adopted, so he fled Corinth to escape his fate. He was assaulted on the road by a carriage driver who was a herald to Laius, Oedipus' biological father. Oedipus killed the driver and Laius.

Oedipus defeated the Sphinx and became king of the Thebans. He was given Jocasta, his biological mother, as a wife. Laius and Oedipus tried to avert fate, but Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and became his mother's lover. Because of the main character's attraction to his biological mother, Freud called his theory of the same nature the Oedipus complex.

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Subconscious Feelings

Freud compared the lack of knowledge on the part of Oedipus to subconscious feelings in young children. Oedipus was not aware that he was his own mother's lover, or that he had removed his father. Children in the phallic stage are not consciously aware of the sexual desire for a parent. Children may feel jealousy or anger towards the same-sex parent, but they can't identify the reason for those feelings.

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Freud tried to rationalize the theory by saying that the behaviors associated with the Oedipus complex during the phallic stage are not overtly sexual. He said that a child may want to sleep in bed between his parents or crawl between them when they are sitting together.

Oedipus complex behavior


Identity and Independence

Freud believed children had to overcome the Oedipus complex by identifying with the parent of the same sex. For example, Freud believed that a young boy should realize that he can not eliminate or replace his father because the adult parent is much stronger. This realization causes anxiety and fear, and those feelings are only resolved by identifying with the father. Freud claimed that an inability to resolve this conflict early in life caused neurosis as an adult.

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Electra Complex

Carl Jung proposed the Electra complex as the Oedipus complex for girls. Freud rejected the proposal because he believed girls and boys both experienced the Oedipus complex. He believed girls felt sexual attraction towards their fathers and competed with their mothers.

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Little Hans

Freud claimed that the Oedipus Complex was universal, but he had no tangible evidence to support that claim. The child known as Little Hans was Freud's only case study, and Hans was afraid of horses. Han's father did most of the psychoanalysis and communicated with Freud via letter. Hans' father was also a strong supporter of Freud's work and theories. Many researchers in the psychological sciences dismissed Freud's theories and claimed that Freud had established his theory before meeting Little Hans and planned on using the case study to support his theories regardless of the real reasons for Hans' phobia.

Oedipus complex little hans study



Freud's Oedipus theory was often rejected during his lifetime, and it is considered completely illegitimate in modern psychology. Freud was accused of twisting "Oedipus Rex" to match his own ideas. Oedipus' story started with parental neglect and abuse. He did not in fact see his mother as an object of desire, and he tried to avoid killing his father. He even tore his own eyes out after realizing what he had done. Misinterpreting a fictional play is minor, but it fits with other accusations of manipulating research. Freud selectively chose human behaviors that supported the Oedipus complex, and he omitted behaviors that contradicted it.

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