Oedipal or Oedipal complex: What does it entail and its symptoms

The Oedipal complex is a term that everyone hears at least once in their lifetimes, but what is it? What are the symptoms? What is an Electra complex? Can an Oedipal complex be resolved? What happens if it isn’t resolved?



What is Oedipal?

The Oedipal complex, more famously known as the Oedipus complex, is a term that describes a child’s feelings of desire toward their opposite-sex parent and jealousy, resentment, and anger toward their same-sex parent. A girl feels she is competing with her mother for her father’s affection. A boy feels he is competing with his father for his mother’s affection. Essentially, a child sees their same-sex parent as a rival for the opposite-sex parent’s affection and attention.

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The term Oedipal complex originated thanks to Sigmund Freud, the renowned Austrian neurologist, in his 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams and later on in his theory of psychosexual stages of development. The concept became more and more important as Freud expanded his concept of psychosexual development.

Freud named the oedipal complex after the character in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex who kills his father and marries his mother. In the Greek myth, written around 429 B.C., the character Oedipus is abandoned at birth because an oracle told his father that he would be killed by his son, so his father abandons him on a mountainside to die. Resulting in Oedipus doesn’t know who his parents are. Oedipus was rescued by a Sheppard and told that he will one day marry his mother and kill his father. Mortified, Oedipus runs away. It is only once he had killed his father and married his mother that he found out who they really were.

What is the Oedipal Complex?

The Oedipal Complex, in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, is a child’s desire for sexual involvement with the opposite-sex parent- mostly a boy’s desire for his mother. The desire is kept under wraps and out of conscious awareness by being repressed. However, Freud believed that even the repressed desire had an influence over how a child behaved and played a role in their overall development- namely in the phallic stage of psychosexual development. Freud also believed that a successful completion of the phallic stage involved identifying with the same-sex parent which would lead them to develop a mature sexual identity. The Oedipal complex occurs in between the ages of three and five.

The phallic stage of psychosexual development is the third stage in Freudian psychoanalysis that occurs between the ages of three and five or six. The theory suggests that this stage is where a child’s libido and desire center upon their genitalia as the erogenous zone. Essentially, a part of the body sensitive to sexual stimulation. The phallic stage is an important point when it comes to forming a sexual identity. Freud suggested that during this stage in the development, a child develops a sexual attraction to their opposite-sex parent and hostility toward the same-sex parent. That is to say, this is the point in which he develops the Oedipal complex.

What is the difference between an Oedipal Complex and an Oedipus complex?

There isn’t a difference between the Oedipal complex and the Oedipus complex. They refer to the same concept. Both words come from the same word stem “oedip-”. The term “Oedipus” derives from the character in the Greek myth while “Oedipal” means “of, or relating to, the Oedipus”.



What is the difference between an Oedipal Complex and an Electra Complex?

When Freud used the term “Oedipal complex”, he referred to both boys and girls although he admitted that each sex experiences it differently. Freud was heavily criticized on his views of female sexuality and he himself admitted that his understanding of women was a bit underdeveloped. Freud believed that girls experience “penis envy” when they discover they don’t have a penis and feel resentment toward their mother for “sending them into the world insufficiently equipped.” This resentment would give way to identifying with the mother and the process of internalizing the characteristics of the same-sex parent would begin. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney refuted Freud’s “penis envy” idea with “womb envy”. The idea being that men feel resentment because they lack the ability to bear children.

Carl Jung, among others, didn’t agree with Freud that the Oedipal complex covered both boys and girl. The term Electra complex was brought into being to describe the desire girls feel for their fathers and jealousy for their mothers. Jung also suggested that when a girl discovers that she doesn’t have the penis like the one her father has, she imagines that she will get a penis if he makes her pregnant. This results in the girl becoming more emotionally close to the father and becoming more resentful towards her mother whom she believes castrated her.

The term “Electra” comes from a Greek myth where Electra was the daughter of the Agamemnon who planned her mother’s murder.  

Symptoms of an oedipal complex

Symptoms will show both consciously and unconsciously. However, there are some signs that can show an Oedipal complex. Some of those include from a child’s perspective:

  • A little boy being possessive of this mother and telling his father not to kiss or touch her.
  • A little girl declaring that she plans to marry her father when she grows up.

Some symptoms from a man’s perspective:

  • Feeling and thinking that your father shouldn’t kiss or hug your mom. The physical intimacy between the couple makes you naturally jealous.
  • You want to sleep next to your mom. You want to try to take your father’s place.
  • You deal with sexual impotency. Essentially, every time you’re aroused, you think of your mom.
  • Your mother is your priority. You think about her constantly. She becomes more important than a wife or children.
  • You have unstable relationships and jump between relationships often. The thought of sharing a bond with another girl isn’t acceptable.
  • You get into verbal fights with your father. You may shout at him to stay away from your mother.
  • You are attracted to older people. If a woman is older and has characteristics like your mom, she’s instantly more attractive.
  • You admire your mom too much. You love the way she dresses, walks, talks, and acts. You can’t help but compliment her.


How is an oedipal complex resolved?

A child faces a developmental conflict at each stage in Freud’s theory of psychosexual development that must be resolved in order to create a healthy adult personality. The process to develop a healthy adult personality is to identify with the same-sex parent in order to resolve the conflict in the phallic stage (the Oedipal complex).

Within Freud’s theory, there are three types of personality: the id, the superego, and the ego. The id refers to the personality that is present at birth and acts according to a pleasure principle that needs should be met immediately. For example, if you’re thirsty, you should drink. However, needs aren’t always met immediately and tension results because of it. The id, in order to relieve tension, relies on a primary process of creating mental imagery through fantasy, hallucinating, and daydreaming. For example, you’re hungry and start daydreaming about a big, juicy burger. The superego is the moralistic part of the personality that forms later on in childhood due to parenting styles and social influences. The ego is the balance between the id and the superego by fulfilling the needs of the id and the superego yet also making sure they stay realistic.

In order to resolve the Oedipus complex, Freud suggested that while the primary id wants to get rid of the father, the more realistic ego understands that the father is much stronger than the child. Boys will experience what Freud called castration anxiety, a fear of both figurative and literal emasculation. As a boy becomes more aware of the differences physically between girls and boys, he will assume that the female’s penis has been removed and that the father will also castrate him as a punishment for desiring his mother. In order to resolve this internal conflict, identification, the defense mechanism, kicks in. This is when the superego is formed and becomes part of the inner moral authority. An internalization of the father tries to suppress the urges of the id and make the ego act upon these more ideal standards.

A child’s superego retains the character of the father and the strong feelings of the Oedipal complex are repressed because of it. However, other influences contribute to the repression of the complex, too. Such as social norms, religious teachings, and cultural influences.

It is out of the power play between the id, ego, and superego where the overall sense of right and wrong emerge. Sometimes, however, these repressed feeling can also result in an unconscious sense of guilt which can have a strong influence over the individual’s conscious actions.

What happens if an oedipal complex isn’t resolved?

When a conflict in a psychosexual stage isn’t resolved, a fixation at that point in development can be the result. Freud theorized that boys who don’t deal with their Oedipal complex become fixated with their mother, “mother-fixated”, while girls become “father-fixated”. As adults, these people will seek out partners who resemble their opposite-sex parent.

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