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The Oedipus complex

Published by Sarah Horrocks
Published on 16 June 2008

The Oedipus complex was a term first used to describe a normal stage of emotional development in little boys, a series of impulses that, at around 2 to 3 years of age, drives a child to be attracted to his mother and feel hositility towards his father. Today it is applied to both sexes.

Defintion
The Oedipus complex is the unconscious and normal rejection of the parent of the same sex, due to a projection of love for the parent of the opposite sex, that occurs between the age of 2 and a half to 7. It resolves itself naturally through gradual identification with the parent of the same sex.

The origins of the Oedipus complex
The Oedipus complex was identified in boys by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, by reference to a play by Sophocles where the King of Thebes abandons his son Oedipus. Oedipus later kills his father and marries his mother without realising. The term Electra complex is used for little girls; it comes from the name of a Greek heroine who kills her mother in revenge for her murder of her father Agamemnon.

Manifestations
- Around 3 years of age, a little boy becomes possessive with his mother, demanding more hugs and tenderness. He can also seek to enter into his parents' intimacy by entering their room without knocking, for example. For the little girl, this phase starts when she tries to charm her father, cuddle up to him and seek to attract his attention, while her mother becomes both a rival and a model. Freud referred to the Oedipus phease as part of the phallic phase, because the boy is in the phase of discovery of his body and is aware that the penis is a key element in the privacy of his parents, where he is excluded.

- Unsuccessful in this unconscious seduction and without the power to put words to what they feel, children often repress feelings that express themselves in anger and nightmares between the ages of 3 and 5. Freud calls this castration anxiety, with castration viewed as a punishment.

- To get out of this situation, a child between 3 and 7 years of age may stop trying to take the place of the parent of the opposite sex by repressing emotion and passion into the unconscious. This is what Freud calls resolution and it happens gradually. At around 5 or 6, little girls start to want to do everything like their mother, and little boys want to do everything their father does.

How to react
The Oedipus complex is a key moment of sexual and personality development. It is a normal step, but requires a supportive attitude from parents. The parent towards whom the child is momentarily aggressive must continue as if nothing has happened and the 'preferred' parent must make the child see that the other parent is also valued.

Consequences on adult life
In the development of the child, incomplete resolution of the Oedipus complex is the cause of most mental problems in men, according to Freud.
However, this complex seems only to exist in nuclear families (where father, mother and children live under the same roof) and the emergence of new forms of families (single parents, gay parents etc.) drives modern psychoanalysis to consider the case where a parental figure is absent, intermittent, or shared between several men. The lack of a paternal figure is also said to lead a child to identify with his mother and so, in certain cases, be attracted to people of the same sex.

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