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Oedipus Complex

The theory that children are torn between feelings of love for one parent while feeling a sense of competition with the other; first put forth by Sigmund Freud as one possible cause of neuroses in later life.

Sigmund Freud first suggested the existence of what he would later call the Oedipus complex in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In this work, he describes a subconscious feelings in children of intense competition and even hatred toward the parent of the same sex, and feelings of romantic love toward the parent of the opposite sex. He felt that if these conflicting feelings were not successfully resolved, they would contribute to neuroses in later life. The name "Oedipus" refers to Oedipus Rex, the classic Greek play by Sophocles, which tells the story of Oedipus, who is abandoned at birth by his parents, King Lauis and Queen Jocasta. He later comes back and, as foretold by prophecy, kills his father and marries his mother before finding out his true identity. Freud saw in the play an archetypal dynamic being played out, and so coopted the character's name for his description.

In traditional Freudian psychoanalytical theory, the term Electra complex was used when these unconscious wishes were attributed to a young girl and centered around sexual involvement with her father and jealous rivalry with her mother. Like Oedipus, Electra is a figure in Greek mythology who participated in the killing of her parent (in Electra's case, her mother). Contemporary psychology no longer distinguishes this complex by gender, and the Electra complex is included in the definition of the Oedipus complex.

Modern interpretations of Freudian theories are often critical, and his Oedipus theory has been no exception. Many current psychologists think of it as too simplistic, and the authors of the Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) state, "Freud's formula … gives a onesided and too simple an account of the complex interactions of the family." It would be fair to say that this is the current view of Freud's Oedipal notions. Yet, looking to Freud's Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1920), Freud writes, "I do not wish to assert that the Oedipus complex exhausts the relation of children to their parents: it can easily be far more complicated. The Oedipus complex can, moreover, be developed to a greater or lesser strength, it can even be reversed; but it is a regular and very important factor in a child's mental life."

Further Reading

Montrelay, Michele. "Why Did You Tell Me I Love Mommy and That's Why I'm Frightened When I Love You." American Imago (Summer 1994): 213.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Tabin, Johanna. On the Way to Self. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development