What Is the Oedipus Complex?

Published on: 22 Jun 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
mother and son on bed

According to Greek mythology Oedipus, the King of Thebes, unwittingly married his mother and killed his father. The tragedy provides the name for the Oedipus Complex, a theory proposed by Sigmund Freud, which explores the feelings of attraction some heterosexual children have towards their opposite-sex parent or people who remind them of said parent.

What is the Oedipus Complex in Psychology?

The term Oedipus complex was coined by Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, who believed the complex occurred during the “phallic stage” of development from age three to six.

The Oedipus Complex, also known as the Oedipal Complex, can manifest in many forms.

Licensed marriage and family therapist Nicole Arzt provides an example: “a young boy feels rage and anger towards his father. He wants to be the center of attention for his mother. aHe has unconscious fantasies of removing his father altogether, but he also experiences profound castration anxiety (which refers to the fear of his father castrating him).To mitigate this anxiety, the son starts to identify with the father and takes on his personality and attributes. Thus, father and son become bonded; the father becomes a mentor figure for the little boy.”

Arzt explains that today mental health professionals don’t put as much stock in Freud’s theory that children hold sexual desire for their parents. “This model is very outdated and the subject of tremendous criticism,” says Arzt. “Today, Freud’s theories have been largely replaced by more concentrated psychodynamic and cognitive models.”

How does a “lovemap” apply to Oedipus Complex?

Oedipus Complex is interwoven with the idea of a “lovemap,” which humans develop at a young age.

“The lovemap guides how a person expects, experiences, and acts out love and affection,” says child and adolescent mental health worker Rachel Drosdick-Sigafoos, M.S. “The Oedipal complex and the lovemap stem from similar psychosexual development ideas: essentially, because the people who raise us during our early years are dominant persons on our lovemap, how they did and did not express love to us shapes how we love as adults.”

What are the Signs of Oedipus Complex in Children and Adults?

While the Oedipus Complex no longer holds sway in clinical psychological settings, it has undergirds many of our cultural narratives and remains a common thematic symbol. “It’s not uncommon for young children to experience profound affection for their parents. They may make comments like saying they want to marry their mom or dad or that mom or dad is their girlfriend/boyfriend,” says Arzt. “They may become clingy and demand attention if you’re the opposite-sex parent. Likewise, they may show some jealousy or possessiveness if other children or people demand [a parent’s] attention.”

She explains that children naturally bond with their parents and are often trying out or playing at adult relationships they witness. “More recent research suggests that children with secure attachments build a sense of innate connection and safety with their caretakers, which could be a more modern approach to examining this complex,” says Arzt.

When seeking out relationships in adulthood, childhood experiences often impact who we choose to be with.

“Someone who lacked warmth and affection in infancy and toddlerhood may seek affection from people who have not earned their trust, while others raised in a similar environment may mature to also be distant,” says Drosdick-Sigafoos.

At the same time, she explains, if someone was closely guarded or sheltered as a child, even to the point of smothering, they may grow up to seek independence and often resist being vulnerable or opening up to others. At the same time, others may have an inverse reaction and continue to seek out extreme closeness from all their relationships.

How Does Oedipus Complex Affect Relationships?

Oedipus Complex was thought to be especially difficult for people who had a bad relationship with their parents and felt uncared for. “Some people who were emotionally hurt, neglected, stifled, or smothered reenact their early experiences to try to understand, overcome, and fix their parents’ failings, but instead develop attractions to partners who will repeat the parents’ patterns,” says Drosdick-Sigafoos. “In the case of someone who was left to cry without comfort or even punished for crying, they may seek emotionally unavailable partners and pour love on the unavailable partner to try to prove ‘I am worthy of love. I can make someone love me.’”

She goes on to explain that if a person seeks out an emotionally unavailable partner who then refuses to give them the love they want, it’s a way for them to prove to themselves that their parents were right and they are unloveable.

However, Drosdick-Sigafoos stresses that the Oedipus Complex is not an indisputable predestination. “You do not have to choose a life partner who emulates your parents’ worst traits, nor do you have to choose a life partner who is the exact opposite of your parent(s),” she says. “By acknowledging that you may be reenacting or responding to your original lovemap, you empower yourself to redraw your lovemap so you are the focus.”

How do you Avoid Oedipus Complex in a Relationship?

Understanding your lovemap, as well as getting to the root of what is driving your desire for someone who may not be right for you, will be helpful in helping you move past these feelings.

“Though we learn certain behaviors in the early years that we may emulate or resist later, we can discover what is authentic and what we dislike so that our love languages become our own instead of reenactments,” says Drosdick-Sigafoos. It’s vital to remember — patterns can be broken, even ones that stem from early childhood. If you’re struggling in your relationships and think you might benefit from speaking with a licensed professional, online therapy may be a convenient, inexpensive way to get help.

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