The Oedipus Complex, Is It Accurate?

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
June 12, 2019

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 was shaped and molded by important events from childhood, which was summarized in his theory of psychosexual development.  This theory is arguably the most controversial part of Freud’s research and contended that one could become fixated in a particular stage and could not be 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, or the Phallic stage, Freud contended that sexual impulses center around the erogenous areas of the child’s body and introduced the concept of the Oedipus Complex.


The Oedipus Complex occurs when a child develops 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 and envy towards his father culminates in visions and dreams of eliminating his father and assuming his rightful role with his mother.

The Oedipus Complex 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.  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 woman 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 actually representative of Han’s fear of his father and 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.  Does this case study hold enough evidence to support the accuracy of the Oedipus Complex?  The large majority says no, especially due to the fact that this was an isolated case study, could not be verified through research or experimentation on a larger population, and was skewed since Han’s father did most of the psychoanalysis and was familiar with the Oedipus Complex prior to treatment.

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.

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

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.

More For You