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What Is an Oedipus Complex?

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Developmental Psychology

What Is an Oedipus Complex?

Explore one of Freud’s most controversial yet enduring concepts

By Kendra Cherry | Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD
Updated September 20, 2018

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The Oedipus Complex

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    The Oedipal complex, also known as the Oedipus complex, is a term used by  Sigmund Freud  in his theory of  psychosexual stages of development  to describe a child’s feelings of desire for his or her opposite-sex parent and jealousy and anger toward his or her same-sex parent. Essentially, a boy feels that he is competing with his father for possession of his mother, while a girl feels that she is competing with her mother for her father’s affections. According to Freud, children view their same-sex parent as a rival for the opposite-sex parent’s attentions and affections.

    The Origins of the Oedipal Complex

    Freud first proposed the concept of the Oedipal complex in his 1899 book  The Interpretation of Dreams , although he did not formally begin using the term Oedipus complex until the year 1910. The concept became increasingly important as he continued to develop his concept of psychosexual development.

    Freud named the complex after the character in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother.

    In the Greek myth, Oedipus is abandoned at birth and thus does not know who his parents are. It is only after he had killed his father and married his mother that he learns their true identities.

    How Does the Oedipus Complex Work?

    In  psychoanalytic theory , the Oedipus complex refers to the child’s desire for sexual involvement with the opposite sex parent, particularly a boy’s erotic attention to his mother. This desire is kept out of conscious awareness through repression, but Freud believed that it still had an influence over a child’s behavior and played a role in development.

    Freud suggested that the Oedipus complex played an important role in the phallic stage of psychosexual development. He also believed that successful completion of this stage involved identifying with the same-sex parent which ultimately would lead to developing a mature sexual identity.

    According to Freud, the boy wishes to possess his mother and replace his father, who the child views as a rival for the mother’s affections.

    The Oedipal complex occurs in the phallic stage of psychosexual development between the ages of three and five. The phallic stage serves as an important point in forming sexual identity.

    During this stage of development, the Freud suggested that the child develops a sexual attraction to his or her opposite sex parent and hostility toward the same-sex parent.

    Signs of the Oedipus Complex 

    So what are some of the signs of the oedipal complex? Freud suggested that there are a number of behaviors that children engage in that are actually a result of this complex. Some behavioral manifestations of the complex might involve a boy expressing possessiveness of his mother and telling his father not to hug or kiss his mom. Little girls at this age may declare that they plan to marry their fathers when they grow up.

    The Electra Complex

    The analogous stage for girls is known as the  Electra complex  in which girls feel desire for their fathers and jealousy of their mothers. The term Electra complex was introduced by Carl Jung to describe how this complex manifests in girls. Freud, however, believed that the term Oedipus complex referred to both boys and girls, although he believed that each sex experiences it differently.

    Freud also suggested that when girls discover that they do not have a penis, they develop penis envy and resentment toward their mothers for “sending her into the world so insufficiently equipped.” Eventually, this resentment gives way to identification with her mother and the process of internalizing the attributes and characteristics of her same-sex parent.

    It was Freud’s views of female sexuality that were perhaps his most heavily criticized. The psychoanalyst Karen Horney refuted Freud’s concept of penis envy and instead suggested that men experience womb envy due to their inability to bear children.

    Freud himself admitted that  his understanding of women  was perhaps less than fully realized. “We know less about the sexual life of little girls than on boys,” he explained. “But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction. After all, the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology.”

    How Is the Oedipus Complex Resolved?

    At each stage in Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, children face a developmental conflict that must be resolved in order to form a healthy adult personality. In order to develop into a successful adult with a healthy identity, the child must identify with the same-sex parent in order to resolve the conflict of the phallic stage.

    So how does the child go about resolving the Oedipus complex? Freud suggested that while the primal  id  wants to eliminate the father, the more realistic  ego  knows that the father is much stronger. The id, as you may recall, is the primal source of energy that seeks to immediately satisfy all of the unconscious urges. The ego is the part of personality that emerges to mediate between the urges of the id and the demands of reality.

    According to Freud, the boy then experiences what he called castration anxiety – a fear of both literal and figurative emasculation. Freud believed that as the child becomes aware of the physical differences between males and females, he assumes that the female’s penis has been removed and that his father will also castrate him as a punishment for desiring his mother.

    In order to resolve the conflict, the defense mechanism known as identification kicks in. It is at this point that the  super-ego  is formed. The super-ego becomes a sort of inner moral authority, an internalization of the father figure that strives to suppress the urges of the id and make the ego act upon these idealistic standards.

    In The Ego and the Id, Freud explained the child’s superego retains the character of the child’s father and that the strong feelings of the Oedipus complex are then repressed.

    Outside influences including social norms, religious teachings, and other cultural influences help contribute to the repression of the Oedipal complex.

    It is out of this that the child’s conscience emerges, or his overall sense of right and wrong. In some cases, however, Freud also suggested that these repressed feelings could also result in an unconscious sense of guilt. While this guilt may not be overtly felt, it can still have an influence over the individual’s conscious actions.

    What If the Oedipus Complex Is Not Resolved?

    So what happens when the Oedipus complex is not successfully resolved? As when conflicts at other psychosexual stages are not resolved, a fixation at that point in development can result. Freud suggested that boys who do not deal with this conflict effectively become “mother-fixated” while girls become “father-fixated.” As adults, these individuals will seek out romantic partners who resemble their opposite-sex parent.

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    Article Sources

    • Freud, S. The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. Standard Edition. 1924; 19: 172–179.
    • Freud, S. The Question of Lay Analysis, Standard Edition. 1926; 20: 183-250.
    • Freud, S. An Outline of Psychoanalysis, James Strachey Trans. New York: Norton; 1940.
    • Mitchen, SA & Black, M. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books; 2016.
    • Hockenbury, DH & Hockenbury, SE. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers; 2012.

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    What is the Oedipus and Electra complex?

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    These are concepts of the psychodynamic theory proposed by Sigmund Freud. Boys expereince the Oedipus complex, and girls experience the Electra complex. Both sexes experience this unconsciously during the phallic stage of their psychosexual development which is between ages 3-5. Freud believed that during the Oedipus complex, boys begin to have a sexual attraction towards their mother and they envy their father. They then suppress their feelings for their mother as they are scared that their father will find out, instead begin to imitate their father and that is how they develop their gender identical to their father. The same happens for girls, but opposite, and this is called the Electra complex.

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    Electra complex

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    “Daddy’s girl” and “Daddy’s little girl” redirect here. For other uses, see Daddy’s Girl (disambiguation) and Daddy’s Little Girl (disambiguation) .

    Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon , by Frederic Leighton , c.1869

    In Neo-Freudian psychology , the Electra complex, as proposed by Carl Jung in his “Theory of Psychoanalysis [1] [2] , is a girl’s psychosexual competition with her mother for possession of her father. In the course of her psychosexual development, the complex is the girl’s phallic stage ; a boy’s analogous experience is the Oedipus complex . The Electra complex occurs in the third—phallic stage (ages 3–6)—of five psychosexual development stages: (i) the Oral , (ii) the Anal , (iii) the Phallic , (iv) the Latent , and (v) the Genital —in which the source of libido pleasure is in a different erogenous zone of the infant’s body.[ citation needed ]

    In classical psychoanalytic theory, the child’s identification with the same-sex parent is the successful resolution of the Electra complex and of the Oedipus complex ; his and her key psychological experience to developing a mature sexual role and identity . Sigmund Freud instead proposed that girls and boys resolved their complexes differently—she via penis envy , he via castration anxiety ; and that unsuccessful resolutions might lead to neurosis .
    Hence, women and men who are fixated in the Electra and Oedipal stages of their psychosexual development might be considered “father-fixated” and “mother-fixated”.


    • 1 Background
    • 2 Characteristics
    • 3 Case studies
    • 4 Electra in fiction
    • 5 Electra in poetry
    • 6 Electra in music
    • 7 See also
    • 8 References
    • 9 Further reading

    Background[ edit ]

    Electra and Orestes, matricides

    As a psychoanalytic term for daughter–mother psychosexual conflict, the Electra complex derives from the Greek mythologic character Electra , who plotted matricidal revenge with Orestes , her brother, against Clytemnestra , their mother, and Aegisthus , their stepfather, for their murder of Agamemnon , their father (cf. Electra , by Sophocles). [3] [4] [5] Sigmund Freud developed the female aspects of the sexual development theory—describing the psychodynamics of a girl’s sexual competition with her mother for sexual possession of the father—as the feminine Oedipus attitude and the negative Oedipus complex; [6] yet it was his collaborator Carl Jung who coined the term Electra complex in 1913. [7] [8] [9] Freud rejected Jung’s term as psychoanalytically inaccurate: “that what we have said about the Oedipus complex applies with complete strictness to the male child only, and that we are right in rejecting the term ‘Electra complex’, which seeks to emphasize the analogy between the attitude of the two sexes”. [10] [2]

    In forming a discrete sexual identity ( ego ), a girl’s decisive psychosexual experience is the Electra complex—daughter–mother competition for possession of the father. [11] It is in the phallic stage (ages 3–6), when children become aware of their bodies, the bodies of other children, and the bodies of their parents that they gratify physical curiosity by undressing and exploring each other and their genitals—the erogenous center —of the phallic stage; thereby learning the physical gender differences between male and female, “boy” and “girl”. When a girl’s initial sexual attachment to her mother ends upon discovering that she has no penis , she then transfers her libidinal desire (sexual attachment) to her father and increases sexual competition with her mother.[ citation needed ]

    Characteristics[ edit ]

    The psychodynamic nature of the daughter–mother relationship in the Electra complex derives from penis envy , caused by the mother, who also caused the girl’s castration ; however, upon re-aligning her sexual attraction to her father (heterosexuality), the girl represses the hostile female competition, for fear of losing the love of her mother. This internalization of “Mother” develops the super-ego as the girl establishes a discrete sexual identity ( ego ). Without a penis, the girl cannot sexually possess her mother, as the infantile id demands. Consequently, the girl redirects her desire for sexual union upon her father, and thus progresses to heterosexual femininity, which culminates in bearing a child who replaces the absent penis . Moreover, after the phallic stage , the girl’s psychosexual development includes transferring her primary erogenous zone from the infantile clitoris to the adult vagina . Freud thus considered the feminine Oedipus attitude (“Electra complex”) to be more emotionally intense than the Oedipal conflict of a boy, resulting, potentially, in a woman with a submissive, less confident personality. [12]

    In both sexes, defense mechanisms provide transitory resolutions of the conflicts between the drives of the Id and the drives of the ego. The first defense mechanism is repression , the blocking of memories, emotional impulses, and ideas from the conscious mind; yet it does not resolve the Id–Ego conflict. The second defense mechanism is identification , by which the child incorporates, to his or her ego, the personality characteristics of the same-sex parent; in so adapting, the girl facilitates identifying with mother, because she understands that, in being females, neither of them possesses a penis, thus are not antagonists. [13] If sexual competition for the opposite-sex parent is unresolved, a phallic-stage fixation might arise, leading a girl to become a woman who continually strives to dominate men (viz. penis envy ), either as an unusually seductive woman (high self-esteem) or as an unusually submissive woman (low self-esteem). In a boy, a phallic-stage fixation might lead him to become a vain, over-ambitious man. Therefore, the satisfactory parental handling and resolution of the Electra complex are most important in developing the infantile super-ego , because, by identifying with a parent, the girl internalizes morality ; thereby, she chooses to comply with societal rules, rather than being reflexively compelled to comply, for fear of punishment.[ citation needed ]

    Case studies[ edit ]

    Prince Charming hero meets Cinderella heroine (1912)

    A 1921 study of patients at a New York state mental hospital, On the Prognostic Significance of the Mental Content in Manic-Depressive Psychosis, reported that of 31 manic-depressive patients studied, 22 (70%) had been diagnosed as afflicted with an Electra complex; and that 12 of the 22 patients had regressed to early stages of psychosexual development . [14]

    Electra in fiction[ edit ]

    Fiction affords people the opportunity to identify with the protagonists of fantastic stories depicting what might be if they could act upon their desires . Often, in aid to promoting social conformity, the myth , story, stage play , or film presents a story meant to frighten people from acting upon their desires. [15] In the course of infantile socialization , fairy tales fulfill said function; boys and girls identify with the hero and heroine in the course of their adventures. Often, the travails of hero and heroine are caused by an evil stepmother who is envious of him, her, or both, and will obstruct their fulfilling of desire. Girls, especially in the three-to-six year age range, can especially identify with a heroine for whom the love of a prince charming will sate her penis envy . Moreover, stories such as Cinderella have two maternal figures, the stepmother (society) and the fairy godmother ; stepmother represents the girl’s feelings towards mother; the fairy godmother teaches the girl that her (step) mother loves her, thus, to have mother’s love, the girl must emulate the good Cinderella, not the wicked stepsisters. [16]

    Electra in poetry[ edit ]

    The American poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) acknowledged that the poem Daddy (1962) is about a woman, afflicted with an unresolved Electra complex, who conflates her dead father and derelict husband in dealing with having been emotionally abandoned. [17] Her biographers noted a psychologic irony about the life of the poet Plath: she knew her father for only eight years, before he died; she knew her husband for eight years, before she killed herself. Her husband was her substitute father, psychosexually apparent when she addresses him (the husband) as the “vampire father” haunting her since his death. In conflating father and husband as one man, Sylvia Plath indicates their emotional equality in her life; the unresolved Electra complex. [18]

    Electra in music[ edit ]

    On their self-titled album, the alternative music group Ludo have a song titled, “Electra’s Complex”.

    See also[ edit ]

    • Feminism and the Oedipus complex
    • Genetic sexual attraction
    • Triad (sociology)

    References[ edit ]

    1. ^ Jung, C. G. (1915). The theory of psychoanalysis . The Journal of Mental and Nervous Disease. New York: New York. p. 69.

    2. ^ a b Laplanche, Jean (1973). The language of psycho-analysis . Pontalis, J.B. New York: W.W. Norton. p. 152. ISBN   0393011054 . OCLC   741058 .CS1 maint: Date and year ( link )
    3. ^ Murphy, Bruce (1996). Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (4th ed.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 310.
    4. ^ Bell, Robert E. (1991). Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. California: Oxford University Press. pp. 177–178.
    5. ^ Hornblower S, Spawforth A (1998). The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. pp. 254–255.
    6. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1956). On Sexuality. Penguin Books Ltd.
    7. ^ Jung, Carl (1913). The Theory of Psychoanalysis.
    8. ^ Scott, Jill (2005). Electra after Freud: Myth and Culture . Cornell University Press. p. 8. ISBN   978-0-8014-4261-2 .
    9. ^ Jung, Carl (1970). Psychoanalysis and Neurosis. Princeton University Press..
    10. ^ Freud, Sigmund (1991). On Sexuality. London: Penguin Books. p. 375.
    11. ^ “Sigmund Freud 1856–1939” . Encyclopaedia of German Literature. London: Routledge. 2000. Retrieved 2 September 2009.
    12. ^ Bullock A, Trombley S (1999). The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. London: Harper Collins. pp. 259, 705.
    13. ^ Bullock, A., Trombley, S. (1999) The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought Harper Collins: London pp. 205, 107
    14. ^ Levin, Hyman L. (1921). “On the prognostic significance of the mental content in manic-depressive psychosis” . The State Hospital Quarterly. VII: 594–95. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
    15. ^ Berger, Arthur Asa. Media Analysis Techniques, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks:Sage Press (2005)
    16. ^ Berger, Arthur Asa Media Analysis Techniques 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Press (2005)
    17. ^ Van Dyne, Susan R. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
    18. ^ Plath, Sylvia “Daddy” Ariel Harper & Row:New York (1966).

    Further reading[ edit ]

    • Breuer J., Freud S. (1909). Studies on Hysteria. Basic Books.
    • De Beauvoir, S. (1952). The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books.
    • Freud, S. (1905). Dora: Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
    • Freud, S. (1920). “A Case of Homosexuality in a Woman”. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. New York: Hogarth Press.
    • Lauzen, G. (1965). Sigmund Freud: The Man and his Theories. New York: Paul S. Eriksson, Inc.
    • Lerman, H. (1986). A Mote in Freud’s Eye. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
    • Mitchell, J. (1974). Psychoanalysis and Feminism. New York: Vintage Books.
    • Tobin, B. (1988). Reverse Oedipal Complex Analysis. New York: Random House Publishing Company.
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