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Oedipus Complex


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Oedipus Complex

Description | Discussion | See also



In the Oedipus complex, a boy is fixated on his mother and competes with his father for maternal attention.

The opposite, the attraction of a girl to her father and rivalry with her mother, is sometimes called the Electra complex.

Sexual awakening

At some point, the child realizes that there is a difference between their mother and their father. Around the same time they realize that they are more alike to one than the other. Thus the child acquires gender.

The child may also form some kind of erotic attachment to the parent of the opposite sex. Whilst their understanding of the full sexual act may be questioned, some kind of primitive physical sensations are felt when they regard and think about the parent in question.


The primitive desire for the one parent may also awaken in the child a jealous motivation to exclude the other parent.

Transferring of affections may also occur as the child seeks to become independent and escape a perceived 'engulfing mother'.

A critical point of awakening is where the child realizes that the mother has affections for others besides itself.

Primitive jealousies are not necessarily constrained to the child and and both parents may join in the game, both in terms of competing with each other for the child's affections and also competing with the child for the affection of the other parent.

Note that opposition to parents may not necessarily be sexually based -- this can also be a part of the struggle to assert one's identity and rebellion against parental control.

The process of transitioning

A critical aspect of the Oedipal stage is loosening of the ties to the mother of vulnerability, dependence and intimacy. This is a natural part of the child becoming more independent and is facilitated by the realization that the mother desires more than just the child.

The Oedipal move blocks the routes of sexual and identification love back to the mother. She becomes a separate object, removed from his ideal self. Thus she can be the subject of object love.

This separation and externalization of love allows a transition away from narcissism of earlier stages.

The father's role in this is much debated. In a number of accounts, such as Lacan's symbolic register, the child transitions their attentions from mother to father.

The father effectively says 'You must be like me -- you may not be like the mother -- you must wait to love her, as I do.' The child thus also learns to wait and share attention.


The boy thus returns to the mother as a separate individual. That separation may be emphasized with scorn and a sense of mastery over women. that can also be seen in the long separation of boys and girls in play and social relationships. This is a source of male denigration of women.

Women become separated reminders of lost and forbidden unity. Their unique attributes, from softness to general femininity are, in consequence, also lost and must be given up as a part of the distancing process. Women become thus both desired and feared. The symbolic phallus becomes a means of protection for the boy and the rituals of mastery used to cover up feelings of loss.

Separation leads to unavailability and hence the scarcity principle takes effect, increasing desire. Women thus create a tension in boys between a lost paradise and dangerous sirens.

Excessive separation leads to a sense of helplessness that can in turn lead to patterns of idealized control and self-sufficiency.

Whilst the boy becomes separated from the mother, it is a long time before he can be independent of her and hence must develop a working relationship that may reflect the tension of love and difference he feels.

The relationship thus may return to a closer mother-son tie, where the point of healthy distance is a dynamically negotiated position, such that comforting is available but is required only upon occasion.

What about the girls?

Most writings about the Oedipal stage focus largely or exclusively on boys, who are seen to have a particular problem as they start with an attachment to the Mother that they have to relinquish both from the point of view of individual independence and especially as a result of the social incest taboo which forbids excessively-close in-family relationships.

The Electra complex, identified by Carl Jung, occurs where a triangle of mother-father-daughter plays out is not a part of traditional psychoanalysis. It is neither a direct mirror image of Oedipus, as the start position is female-female connection.

Jung suggested that when the girl discovers she lacks penis that her father possesses, she imagines she will gain one if he makes her pregnant, and so moves emotionally closer to him. She thus resents her mother who she believe castrated her.

The father symbolizes attractive power and a potentially hazardous male-female relationship is formed, with predictable jealousies and envy as the mother completes the triangle. The dangers of incestuous abuse add, and perhaps develop, the female position of siren temptation.

Girls, as well as boys, need to find independence and their separation from the mother is a matter of creating a separate femininity. This is not as strong a separation as boys and girls can sustain a closer female-female relationships with the mothers. This perhaps explains something of why relationships with others is a more important part of a female life than it is for a male.

The father does provide a haven from female-female jealousies, and so a healthy father-daughter relationship may be built, that also includes appropriate distance. As with mother-son, once the incest taboos are established, a uniquely satisfying opposite-sex relationship can be built, although secret desires for the father can result in the girl feeling some guilt about the relationship.


There are three common threads in the Oedipus complex: The primacy of the desire for one-ness, the maternal embodiment of this and the necessity of paternal intervention.

Historical Oedipus

In the Greek play by Sophocles, Laius, king of Thebes, is told by an oracle that he would be killed by his son and so leaves Oedipus out on the mountainside to die. Oedipus is rescued by a shepherd and taken to the king of Corinth who raises him as a son.

Oedipus, in turn, is told by the Delphic oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified by this, he flees Corinth. At a crossroads he meets Laius, quarrels and kills him. At Thebes, he correctly answers the sphinx's question and hence wins the hand of Jocasta, his real mother, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. When at last the truth comes out, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus, finding her, blinds himself with her golden brooch.

Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon who helped plan the murder of her mother.


Freud puts the Oedipal stage as occurring between 3-5 years. He considers it a stage where the child experiences an erotic attachment to one parent and hostility toward the other parent. The ensuing triangular tension is seen as being the root of most mental disorders.

Freud cites the incest taboo as as at the root of many other prohibitions. He sees the struggle against this as a core part of this development period with transgressions in practice and phantasy.

'We cannot get away from the assumption that man's sense of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banned together'. (Freud, 1930)

Freud links the Oedipus complex with development the superego, which uses guilt to prevent continuation of incestuously oriented relationships.

Failure to get past this trigger point and into the symbolic order is considered to be a classic cause of lasting neurosis.


For Lacan, the mother is characterized by 'lack' of a phallus. The pre-Oedipal child tries to make good the lack. But the mother desires the phallus that will cover over her division in language. The child then realizes its own lack, or 'castration' and seeks to speak or use words such that it can stand in for that which is missing.

The child can hence either speak itself from the position of 'having the phallus' or lacking it. Having a penis, boys are more likely to take the former position. However, taking this position requires living up to the god-like status of having the phallus.

Note that Lacan considered that the Oedipal stage can be successfully navigated without the father, as long as cultural norms and prohibitions can be met, as it is these, rather than the father himself which facilitates the way through


Jacqueline Rose uses Lacan to show how sexual identity is acquired through the Oedipus crisis, rather than being something innate.


Melanie Klein, through her work with young children, saw Oedipal conflict occurring much earlier than Freud and involving part-objects rather than whole parent-figures, and including infantile sadism. How early this starts has been questioned including a consideration that some version of the Oedipal stage occurring almost from the very beginning, at least in phantasy. She see emotional and sexual development occurring:

 '...from early infancy onwards includes genital sensations and trends, which constitute the first stages of the inverted [desire toward the same-sex parent and aggression toward opposite sex one] and positive Oedipus complex.' (Klein, 1945)

She places the Oedipal complex as occurring in the paranoid-schizoid position, where the infant's world is largely split and relations are mainly to part-objects. Thus the Oedipal stage involves working through the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position.

As well as the classic early Oedipus complex, Klein also identifies the Oedipal situation which occurs throughout life.

She saw how children realizes a sexual link between parents at an early age, but perceives it through the infantile experience, thus conceiving of feeding one another, devouring one another, or even exchanging bodily excretions.


Wilfred Bion placed the Oedipus complex even earlier than Klein, hypothesizing an innate oedipal preconception.

He related pairing to the Oedipal stage and the importance of the family group. Early group setting are familial or kinship and these are used as later templates for group activity, and early anxieties may reappear.

Other notes

A common experience in families is that the opposite gender relationships of mother-son and father-daughter are stronger than same-sex relationships, where there may be intra-gender rivalries, for example where the daughter continues to compete with the mother for the father's attention. In most cases, the incest taboo holds and this is a relatively harmless attachment.

Oedipus represents responsibility and guilt, in contrast to Narcissus, who represents self-involvement and denial of reality. Oedipus is an escape from early fantasy of omnipotence.

The gender polarity that Oedipus creates is echoed in modern feminist concerns and male confusion as rights issues erode instinctive positions.

Moving away from the mother, for the boy, is also a part of instilling the incest taboo.

See also

Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents, Standard Edition, XXI

Klein, M. (1945) 'The Oedipus Complex in the Light of Early Anxieties', International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 26, 11-33


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