Oedipus complex takes its name from Greek mythology to describe a psychological theory involving how children view their parents.
It’s natural to feel love for your parents. In fact, parental bonds are an important part of childhood development.
Occasionally, those feelings may stray from platonic, familial love to desire and possessiveness in some children. This experience is the main characteristic of a theory of psychology known as Oedipus complex.
It’s typical for most children to experience an “Oedipus phase” as a part of development. But when the fixation becomes persistent, Oedipus complex may affect a person into adulthood.
Oedipus complex is a psychosexual theory first developed by neurologist Sigmund Freud in 1899.
Freud used the phrase to describe the experience of children feeling a possessive fixation or desire toward the parent of their opposite sex, along with rival feelings toward the parent of their same sex.
According to the theory, all children go through an Oedipus phase as a part of natural sexual development.
These feelings could impact a child’s development and adulthood, but only if they are unable to move past this phase and parental fixation remains.
It’s typical for most children to move beyond this phase in their development as they grow up.
The stages of Freud’s psychosexual development theory
There are five phases in Freud’s theory on psychosexual development. In each phase, the child’s subconscious focuses on a specific part of the body related to pleasure sensation.
While this may sound sexual in nature, Freud theorized that Oedipus was about pleasure sensations more so than the act of having sex.
He saw the association of pleasure with a parent as a natural part of the process of development, such as how the pleasure from bowel relief might encourage toilet training.
The phases occur during specific childhood ages:
- Oral: infancy to 18 months
- Anal: 18 months to 3 years
- Phallic: 3 years to 5 years
- Latency: 5 years to 12 years
- Genital: 12 years, or the onset of puberty, to adulthood
The phallic phase is where Freud believed the most children experienced the majority of sexual identity development.
According to Freud’s theory, children learned to suppress parental attractions in favor of nonfamilial ones during the phallic phase.
While Freud used the Oedipus complex to describe his theory in both male and female children, it was later suggested that it was specific to male children.
Carl Jung, a former pupil and colleague of Freud’s, proposed the use of “Electra complex” to describe a female child experiencing Oedipus complex.
Freud, however, didn’t endorse the use of this term.
He believed both male and female children first fixated on their mother during the Oedipus phase because mothers were typically the main source of need fulfillment for both sexes during childhood.
Modern mental health care professionals now often use the phrase “Oedipal complex” when referring to children of either sex.
According to Freud’s theory, it’s typical for symptoms of Oedipus complex to vary between children. Common symptoms may involve a child expressing certain behaviors toward their parent of the opposite sex, such as:
However, it’s important to note that experiencing conflict with your mom or dad doesn’t necessarily indicate Oedipus complex.
Oedipus complex examples
You may not be able to see obvious signs of Oedipus complex. A possessiveness or fixation on a parent from the point of desire doesn’t always mean sexual behaviors.
There may be subtle signs in children, such as:
- pushing the rival parent away if they try to touch the desired parent
- acting out if the desired parent is giving the rival parent attention
- wanting to marry the desired parent
- pretending they are the rival parent when that parent isn’t around
- acting hostile toward the rival parent
- becoming upset when the desired parent tries to leave or the rival parent provides care
As an adult, you may have no way of knowing if you’ve processed the Oedipus phase fully during childhood. Signs you may be experiencing Oedipus complex as an adult could include:
- unexplainable sense of dislike toward the rival parent
- preoccupation with the desired parent’s activities, wardrobe, or lifestyle
- strong sense of possessiveness or protectiveness toward the desired parent
- selecting adult romantic partners that resemble the desired parent
Because Oedipus complex is based on an unproven theory of psychosexual development, defining what might cause it is difficult.
Freud believed the Oedipus complex later in life was the result of unresolved internal conflict during the phallic phase.
One of Freud’s theories suggested that children eventually experience “castration anxiety” during psychosexual development.
For male children, this is a realization that your father is still dominant over you, accompanied by a fear that he may emasculate or punish you for your feelings toward your mother.
For female children, Freud suggested castration anxiety may emerge as blame toward your mother for not having a penis. This blame is joined by the realization that you can’t displace your mother, and as a female child, you may start to resent your mother further.
According to Freud, resolution of the Oedipus phase for both male and female children comes from finding a solution to these feelings through what Freud called the “formation of the super-ego.”
The super-ego acts as an internal representation of the father figure in male children, helping repress Oedipus complex. In female children, the super-ego helps female children identify with their mother and embrace their similarities.
Freud believed this was one of the critical moments when children developed a sense of morality, learning to override basic desires and instincts.
While Freud remains one of the prominent contributors to modern psychology, his work on psychosexual development never made it beyond theory.
It continues to be a highly debated and controversial approach to how parental relationships impact a child’s attachment processes as an adult.
Other theories seek to explain the same types of behaviors seen in adults theoretically experiencing Oedipus complex.
Pioneered by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s, attachment theory has been suggested as an alternative explanation for Oedipus complex behaviors.
In attachment theory, the behaviors of your child are linked to their instinctual understanding that primary caregivers are critical to survival.
Children form attachments to their mother and father based on how much security is provided by each parent.
This theory aligns with Freud’s observations that both male and female children could experience a fixation on their mother if she was the primary caretaker.
Under this school of thought, the level of security children feel in their parental attachment can emerge in the way they form romantic relationships as adults.
Oedipus complex is a theory of childhood development, not a clinical diagnosis. So, there are no formal treatments for Oedipus complex beyond therapy.
If you feel that you or your child may be experiencing extreme or inappropriate feelings for a parental figure, speaking with a therapist is often the most helpful first step toward support.
Sometimes, other underlying factors may contribute to your relationship with a parent. Certain external pressures that might influence how you view your parents can include:
- mistreatment or abuse during childhood
- cultural norms
- religious constraints
But simply not getting along with your father or mother doesn’t necessarily mean you are experiencing Oedipus complex.
It can help to remember that parents are humans, too. If you’re experiencing negative feelings, they may be based on personality differences and not necessarily on developmental delays during your childhood.
Speaking with a therapist experienced with Oedipus complex can help you develop a plan to examine the root of your feelings and potentially identify behavior modification, if necessary.
Oedipus complex is a highly debated theory pioneered by neurologist Sigmund Freud. It suggests all children form attachments of desire toward their parent of the opposite sex.
According to the theory, children typically overcome these feelings and suppress them as a part of childhood psychosexual development.
Feeling strong love for your mom or dad doesn’t always mean you’re experiencing Oedipus complex. It’s common for humans to form intense bonds with caregivers in childhood.
Feeling strongly toward one parent over the other also doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re experiencing Oedipus complex.
Many things can contribute to the relationships you forge with your parents.
People usually tend to feel closer to the parent who was more present throughout their childhood. For example, you may also feel more distant or negatively toward an emotionally unavailable parent.
If you feel your bond goes beyond platonic love and involves elements of desire or possessiveness, speaking with a therapist can help you understand and cope with your feelings.
Visit Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support for resources on getting help.