OEDIPUS COMPLEX (Oedipus Situation)


In psychoanalytic theory, the erotic attachment of the son for the mother, accompanied by attitudes of rivalry and hostility toward the father. The corresponding relationship between daughter and father is sometimes referred to as the Electra complex, but the term Oedipus complex is frequently applied to both situations.The name Oedipus complex derives from a Greek myth in which Laius, king of Thebes, was told by an oracle that he would be killed by his son. Accordingly, when the boy, Oedipus, was bom he gave him to a shepherd to leave on a mountain to die—but instead, the compassionate shepherd gave him to the king of Corinth to raise. At puberty, the young man journeyed to Thebes and on the way killed Laius in a quarrel, not realizing that he was his true father. On arrival, he solved a riddle presented by the Sphinx and as a reward was given Jocasta, the queen, as a wife. When the relationship to Jocasta finally came to light, she hanged herself. Oedipus then put out his eyes and wandered about with his daughter, Antigone, until he was destroyed by avenging deities.According to Freud, every boy symbolically relives this drama by experiencing incestuous desires for his mother and regarding his father as a hated rival.The psychoanalytic theory holds that the Oedipus situation, or “family romance,” arises in the phallic period of psychosexual development, gathering force between the ages of three and seven. Freud believed it to be a universal phenomenon, holding that it is the source of the powerful taboos against incest found in practically every culture. Most anthropologists, however, deny its universality since there are many cultures in which it does not appear.Freud’s position is also rejected by many psychiatric theorists. Homey (1939) denied that the Oedipus complex is either normal or universal, and viewed it as a neurotic relationship fostered by parents who caress their children erotically, allow them to witness sex scenes, or adopt provocative and seductive attitudes toward their children of the opposite sex. Kanner (1948) claimed that the relationship was “imposed” by Freud and his followers and that the theory was not based on observation of children. Adler interpreted the boy’s conflict with his father and his desire to possess the mother in terms of a striving for superiority—that is, the boy wants to prove he is stronger and more attractive than his father. He also held that boys who are pampered by the mothers are likely to overindulge in sexual fantasies about her; and suggested that the girl’s attachment to the father and hostility toward the mother stem from a desire to reject feminine inferiority and identify with the superior status of the male. See MASCULINE PROTEST.Many types of evidence have been offered to show that the Oedipus situation is common, if not universal, in our culture. Young boys frequently ask the mother which one she loves most, their father or themselves. They may also have dreams or fantasies in which the father goes away, dies, or meets with an accident. The popular song containing the line “I want a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad” is a perennial favorite with male quartets. On the other side of the coin, many mothers “court” their sons, and are overcritical of their daughters or try to marry them off as soon as possible. Similarly, many fathers constantly criticize and deprecate their sons, and at the same time make “dates” with their daughters and show little enthusiasm for their boy friends. Whether these attitudes are an expression of a basic Oedipal situation, or originate this situation, it is an undeniable fact that they do occur.According to the Freudian theory, the Oedipus situation is relinquished in favor of external interests during the latency period (ages six to eleven). It is then revived briefly in puberty, and is normally resolved during adolescence. Two major factors are responsible for this resolution. First, as he develops, the boy identifies increasingly with the male role in life and incorporates his father’s goals and standards into his own patterns of behavior. Likewise the maturing girl gradually finds gratification and fulfillment in the feminine role, as a result both of the mother’s encouragement and the father’s admiration.The second agent for resolution of the Oedipus situation is the castration complex. This complex stems from the boy’s unconscious concern about retaliation by the father for his attentions to the mother, and takes the form of fear of injury to his sexual organs. This forces the son to repress his incestuous feelings for his mother, and when he reaches puberty he begins to direct his libido toward girls of his own age. Freud held that the daughter also experiences castration fantasies, though they are viewed as one of the sources rather than the outcome of the Oedipal attachment—that is, when girls discover that they lack a penis, they blame this difference on the mother, and the effect is to reinforce their hostility toward the mother and their attachment to the father. In their case, the Oedipal relationship is gradually given up because of feelings of shame and guilt, as well as the threat of losing their mother’s love, and not because of castration fear. According to the theory, the female Oedipus complex is never resolved as completely as the male complex, and for this reason women remain psychologically closer to their fathers than to their mothers.Freud (1930) stated: “One says rightly that the Oedipus complex is the nuclear concept of the neuroses, that it represents the essential part of the content of neuroses. It is the culminating point of infantile sexuality, which through its after-effects decisively influences the sexuality of the adult.” He held that many cases of neurotic, psychotic, and character disorder stem from an inadequate resolution of this situation. It is believed to be a major source for phobias (fear of pointed objects, a phallic symbol), compulsions (“undoing” or atoning behavior due to guilt feelings), and conversion reactions (hysterical paralysis of the hand that wants to caress the mother). A schizophrenic patient may reflect the Oedipus situation by believing that he is not the child of his parents, that his mother is his wife, that his father does not exist, or that he has been deprived of his sexual organs.Kisker (1964) cites the play Black Chiffon, in which a mother is so attached to her son that when she discovers that his fiancee wears a black nightgown, she is driven to steal a similar nightgown from a shop: “This theft was motivated by her deep-seated desire to compete with the girl for her son’s affections and at the same time to be punished for her forbidden unconscious wishes.” He also cites the case of a father who shot his daughter and himself on her wedding day because “the load is more than I can bear.”Far more common are the men who remain bachelors and the women who become spinsters as a result of strong attachment to the parent of the opposite sex, the daughter who postpones marriage for years because of a father fixation; the adult son who lives with his widowed mother, spends his life fruitlessly looking for a mother substitute, or marries a woman much older than himself; and the many men and women who adopt (“introject”) characteristics of the parent of the' opposite sex and become either latent or overt homosexuals. See PSYCHOSEXUAL DEVELOPMENT, INCEST, SEX ROLE, CASTRATION COMPLEX, IDENTIFICATION.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "OEDIPUS COMPLEX (Oedipus Situation)," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/oedipus-complex-oedipus-situation/ (accessed September 30, 2022).


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