The Oedipus Complex: Is It Still Relevant?

Author Tracy Smith
Updated on July 12, 2021

Sigmund Freud is best known as the father of psychoanalysis. Through psychoanalytic theory, Freud attempted to explain behavior, while simultaneously mapping out a way to treat mental illness. Freud believed that one’s personality and adult life were shaped and molded by important events from childhood. This was summarized in his theory of psychosexual development.[1]

mother and young child playing

This theory is arguably the most controversial part of Freud’s research and asserted that one could become fixated in a particular stage and could not become psychologically well until all stages were successfully completed. 

In his theory, Freud alleged that infants are born with sexual impulses and search for gratification throughout several stages of development. In the third stage, the phallic stage, Freud contended that sexual impulses center around the erogenous areas of the child’s body and introduced the Oedipus complex. This concept has been accepted and rejected many times over the years by researchers. Before we explore where the current majority of experts stand, let’s first review the background of the Oedipus complex in a little more detail.

What Is the Oedipus Complex?

The Oedipus complex is a classical psychoanalytic theory which asserts that children develop an unconscious desire for the parent of the opposite sex, while feeling envy and jealousy towards the parent of the same sex.

According to the theory, a young boy would begin to unconsciously lust after his mother, while becoming envious and resentful of his father, who receives his mother’s love and attention. Freud contended that the complex, or true conflict arises in the young boy’s feelings for his mother along with the competition that he feels towards his father.

The Oedipus complex explains that the young boy’s feelings of jealousy towards his father culminate in visions and dreams of eliminating his father and assuming his rightful role with his mother. It further explains that the young boy’s feelings of hostility develop into castration anxiety, or an unfounded fear that his father will castrate him as punishment for lusting after his mother.[2]

Resolving the Oedipus Complex 

Freud went on to explain that the young boy will attempt to cope with this anxiety by identifying with his father. The young boy will take on his father’s outlooks, traits, ethics, and morals.

This identification would include personality, behaviors, and perceived gender roles. During this time, the young boy’s father becomes a role model instead of a competitor. Freud stated that identification with the once competitor will result in the acquisition of their superego, or the part of the brain that deals with morality, along with male gender roles. At this point, the theory states that the young boy will learn to desire and lust after other women instead of his mother.

Freud used a case study of Little Hans, a five-year-old boy with a phobia of horses, as proof of the Oedipus complex. Freud contended that Han’s phobia of horses was representative of his fear of his father. Han’s fears that a horse would bite him was actually a fear that his father would castrate him for unconsciously lusting after his mother.[3]

How Is the Oedipus Complex Regarded Today?

Does the case about Hans hold enough evidence to support the accuracy of the Oedipus complex? Many researchers say no. This is, in part, based on the claim that this was an isolated case study that could not be verified through research or experimentation on a larger population.[4] In addition, further analysis showed that there was also abuse and trauma involved in the case of Little Hans which was not initially considered in the study.[5][6]

Most people believe that Freud exaggerated and focused too much on sexual jealousy, especially since he believed that the Oedipus complex was at the forefront of the sexual phase in early childhood. Despite this, several theorists went on to devise other stage and attachment theories that derived from Freud’s beliefs that relationships and childhood development had an important impact on future development.[2]


References

  1. Lantz, S. E., & Ray, S. (2021). Freud Developmental Theory. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
  2. Loewald H. W. (2000). The waning of the Oedipus complex. 1978. The Journal of psychotherapy practice and research9(4), 239–238.
  3. Temperly, J. (2005). ‘The Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy.’ Freud, 61–71. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470713525.ch3
  4. Wolpe, J., & Rachman, S. (1960). Psychoanalytic “evidence”: A critique based on Freud’s case of little Hans. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 131(2), 135–148. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005053-196008000-00007
  5. Kupfersmid J. (2019). Freud’s Clinical Theories Then and NowPsychodynamic psychiatry47(1), 81–97. https://doi.org/10.1521/pdps.2019.47.1.81
  6. Blum H. P. (2007). Little Hans: a centennial review and reconsiderationJournal of the American Psychoanalytic Association55(3), 749–852. https://doi.org/10.1177/00030651070550030201
Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.