Oedipus Complex: A Story And 9 Other Things You Must Know

Oedipus did not have an Oedipus Complex, because he existed only as a myth in 800 BCE. The phrase came twenty-seven centuries later.

Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian psychologist and neurologist, created the term Oedipus complex in his 1899 book, The Interpretation of Dreams. Later, he claimed this psychological condition was universal, and everyone had Oedipal feelings.

What do we mean by the Oedipus complex?

Oedipus complex or Oedipal complex is a child’s unconscious tendency to fall in love with the opposite-gender parent, and harbor jealousy, resentment, and anger toward the same-gender parent. In simple words, it is “father-issues and mommy fixation” for boys, and “mother-issues and daddy fixation” for girls, which arise around 3 to 5 years of age.

Freud’s theory proposed a boy child competes with his father for his mother’s affection, and a girl child competes with her mother for his father’s affection.

There is a fascinating myth behind this psychological condition. Read on.

History of Oedipus: Who was Oedipus?

In 429 BCE, Sophocles wrote a Greek tragedy, Oedipus Tyrannus. However, the myth of Oedipus Rex was already well-known by people around 375 years earlier, in the times of Homer. Its popularity has not diminished, as even now, each year, the play Oedipus The King is performed in the antique amphitheater of Delphi.

Here goes the story.

 Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Jalabert, 1843, Bridgeman Images
Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Jalabert, 1843, Bridgeman Images

Oedipus was merely a baby when his father Laius, King of Thebes, gave him away to a shepherd. Laius instructed him to take the child into the mountains and leave him there, to be killed by the wild beasts.

Laius had a reason for this cruelty. He had received a diabolical prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi that his son would grow to slay his father and marry his mother. To avoid that prophecy becoming true, he sent his son away to death.

The shepherd took the child into Mount Cithaeron, but pity stopped him from leaving the baby there. So he handed it over to another shepherd from the city of Corinth, on the other side of the mountain.

This shepherd takes baby Oedipus to King Polybus of Corinth and expresses his predicament. Polybius decides to bring him up on his own and adopts the child right there.

One day, while growing up in the palace, someone calls out his birth as a disgrace. To find out the truth, Oedipus travels to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, and hears he would kill his father and marry his mother.

The darkness of the prophecy disgusts him to no end. Full of shame, he flees Corinth and runs into the mountains, heading for Thebes, so the prophecy never comes true.

As he wildly makes his way across, he comes upon a chariot completely blocking his path. The charioteer commands Oedipus to step back and move off the road, but he refuses. In his blind fury, Oedipus attacks them and kills both the charioteer and the rider.

Neither the man sitting inside, nor Oedipus, gets to know that the man was his father, King Laius. Thus, he fulfills the first part of the prophecy.

He moves on and reaches the city of Thebes. There, a Sphinx stops him at the gates. She explains to enter the city, he must correctly answer her riddle. But if he gave the wrong answer, she would kill him.

The riddle of The Sphinx was so profound that no one could ever answer it right. The Sphinx asks Oedipus:

What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?

Oedipus thinks for a while and answers:

Man. He crawls on all fours as a baby, then on two legs as an adult, and then with a walking stick when in old age.

On hearing this, the Sphinx hurls herself to death, granting freedom to the people of Thebes. As a reward, the citizens offer Oedipus the empty throne. They also give him the hand of the widow-queen, Jocusta.

They marry, with neither of them knowing they are the son and the mother. Thus, Oedipus fulfills the second part of the prophecy.

Years pass with Oedipus as the king of Thebes. He fathers four children with Jocasta.

Then the town gets infected with a plague. Oedipus promises to rescue his town and orders his brother-in-law Creon to consult the oracle at Delphi.

Creon returns with the information that the murderer of Laius, going unpunished, has caused the plague. Oedipus curses the killer, but Tiresias states Oedipus is the killer.

Oedipus gets furious and blames Tiresias and Creon for creating this line of narrative so they could dethrone him and have the power.

Jocasta clarifies to Oedipus that robbers killed Laius in a place in the mountains where three roads crossed. Oedipus remembers he has indeed murdered a man at this location.

He considers the possibility of him being the killer, but Jocasta reassures him that a witness saw several robbers kill Laius.

Oedipus sends for the witness, so he could solve the issue.

While he waits, a Corinthian messenger arrives with news that Polybus had expired, so Oedipus would be King of Corinth.

Oedipus tells the messenger he cannot take over the throne of Corinth while his mother was alive there. At this, the messenger tells him that his Corinthian mother was not his birth mother. He recounts how the regality adopted him many years back.

Oedipus realizes the dreadful truth and goes inside to kill Jocusta. But Jocusta, already given the news that Oedipus is her son, had already hanged herself.

Seeing her, Oedipus picks out brooches from her gown and gouges out his eyes.

Then he leaves the city forever.

Origins of the complex: What is the Oedipus complex?

First proposed by Sigmund Freud, the Oedipus complex is a psychological phenomenon in which children unconsciously hold loving and intimate wishes toward a parent of their gender while harboring hostile and repulsive wishes toward a parent of the opposite gender.

Oedipus complex is a set of psychodynamic conflicts triggered in a male child, often between the ages of 3 and 5, as a result of an unconscious desire to be the mother’s favored love object and a desire to eradicate paternal competition.

Freud said the Oedipus complex peaked during the ages three and seven. He referred to this stage of a child’s development as the “phallic phase.”

The Oedipus complex is a psychoanalytic theory. It proposes that children tend to have possessive intimate desires for their opposite-gender parent while seeing their same-gender parent as a rival.

It resolves when children overcome their incestuous and competitive emotions and begin to view the same-gender parent as a role model.

When the Oedipus complex is positive, the child’s rival is the parent of the same gender, and, according to Freud, the young guy wishes to have intimate relations with the parent of the opposite gender.

When it is a negative Oedipus complex, the child’s competitor is the opposite-gender parent, and the child desires the same-gender parent.

Freud, who took the idea from the myth of King Oedipus, claimed the Oedipal wishes trigger castration anxiety and apprehension of humiliation and abandonment.

This fear represses the desires in the unconscious mind.

The Oedipus complex decreases with the child’s entry into the latency period. This lessening effect is linked to a castration threat for boys and a desire to have a baby for girls.

Following puberty, the complex is resolved through the selection of an appropriate alternative for their object of love.

Oedipus complex remains an unconscious organizer throughout a person’s entire life.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a literary example of a boy who could never overcome his Oedipus complex, even though he hated her for killing his father and re-marrying.

Reality Check: Is the Oedipus complex real?

The reality of the Oedipus complex is largely relegated to a theoretical perspective, mainly because of a lack of empirical evidence to support the theory.

When first presented, the idea of the Oedipus complex created a far-reaching and controversial effect during Freud’s times.

However, most modern psychologists dismiss the Electra complex hypothesis, particularly its universal component.

Every girl-child does NOT have an Electra complex

Female Oedipus Complex: Is there a Reverse Oedipus Complex that applies to girls?

Yes, a girl can have an Oedipus complex, according to Freudians.

The female positive Oedipus complex is marked by the child girl’s desire to have a physical relationship with the father while rejecting the mother.

Freud believed the interesting point was that the little girl tends to walk away from their mother and approach their father, courting him in the hope of being compensated for their perceived lack of phallic endowment by bearing his child (Freud 1924).

According to Freud, orienting towards the father is shifting the object of the girl’s intimate desires from her mother to her father. It comes often only after a long stage of dependence on the mother from whom she expected phallic satisfaction, in vain.

Driven by her phallic vexation, after staying attached to her mother for an indefinite time, the girl finally deserts her in favor of her father.

At the end of the Oedipal development, around 5 years of age, the girl attempts to win over the father and keep a relationship with him, though without trying to take up the fatherly tasks of regulation.

On the flip side, the constant emotional connection with the mother and against the father illustrates negative Oedipal characteristics (Freud 1931).

In this, the gloriously exclusive mother-daughter relationship is the epitome of a feminine negative Oedipal wishful fantasy, free of brotherly competition and paternal rivalry.

Difference between the Oedipus complex and the Electra complex

Freud applied the term “Oedipal complex” to both boys and girls, though he agreed that each gender experiences it differently.

Freud was strongly criticized for his views on the female gender.

Carl Jung disagreed with Freud that the Oedipal complex affected both boys and girls. In 1913, he coined the phrase “Electra complex” to characterize the longing females have for their fathers and jealously for their mothers.

Jung also proposed when a girl realizes she lacks the penis, she imagines she will acquire it if her father makes her pregnant.

As a result, the daughter becomes more emotionally attached to her father and more resentful of her mother, whom she suspects castrated her.

The name “Electra” is derived from a Greek myth in which Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon, who plotted her mother Clytemnestra’s murder.

Electra was away from home when her mother and her lover, Aegisthus, killed Agamemnon. Electra and her brother, Orestes, came home years later to their father’s tomb. There they plotted to kill Clytemnestra.

How would a Freudian psychologist define the Oedipus complex?

Oedipus complex is defined as a child’s wishful fantasy of being his mother’s privileged and exclusive love object, as well as anxious fantasies he will be punished, that is, castrated, as a result of his intimate desire and aggressive phantasies of eliminating the father, whom he sees as a rival.

What are the signs of the Oedipus complex in adults?

  • The male child feels jealous of the father kissing or hugging or connecting physically with his mother.
  • The male child likes to sleep next to his mother.
  • They often have impotency.
  • Their mother is the most important person in their life, and she takes precedence over their wife or children.
  • He has unstable and incomplete relationships. He abhors the idea of sharing a bond with another girl.
  • He has verbal spats with his father who often yells at him to keep away from his mother.
  • He is attracted to older women who have similar characteristics as his own mother.
  • He admires his mother too much and loves complimenting the way she dresses, walks, talks, and acts.

How is the Oedipus complex resolved?

There are three types of personalities according to Freud’s theory:

  • the id,
  • the ego, and
  • the superego.

The id refers to the personality existing at birth and operates on the pleasure principle, which states that needs should be filled as soon as possible.

When requirements are not always addressed quickly, stress arises.

To relieve tension, the id uses fantasy, hallucination, and daydreaming to generate mental pictures.

The superego is the moralistic aspect of one’s personality that develops later in life as a result of parenting practices and social influences.

The ego maintains the equilibrium between the id and the superego by meeting the requirements of both the id and the superego while remaining realistic.

To resolve the Oedipus complex, Freud proposed that while the primary id desires to destroy the father, the more realistic ego recognizes that the father is far more powerful than the child.

Boys suffer from castration anxiety, which Freud defined as a fear of both figurative and literal emasculation.

As a child becomes more conscious of the physical distinctions between girls and boys, he assumes that the female’s “male organ” has been removed and that his father would castrate him as a punishment for desiring his mother.

To resolve this internal conflict, the defense process, identification, kicks in.

This is when the superego emerges and joins the inner moral authority.

This causes internalization of the father’s efforts to suppress id urges and push the ego to behave more correctly.

Because a child’s superego keeps the character of the father, the intense sentiments of the Oedipal complex are suppressed.

Other factors, however, also contribute to the repression of the Oedipus complex. For example, social norms, religious teachings, and cultural influences.

How Does Oedipus Complex Affect Relationships?

In a relationship, if one partner is experiencing the Oedipus complex, the other might be afraid they are going to be deserted or betrayed because of dissatisfaction and incompatibility issues.

Freud claimed boys, who do not deal with their Oedipal complex, grow fixated on their mother, becoming “mother-fixated,” and girls become “father-fixated.”

As adults, these people look for companions who are similar to their opposite-gender parents. They find it difficult to adjust to any new relationship with a member of the opposite gender.

This highlights the issues of difference in their thinking style, behavior patterns, preferences, characteristics, and appearance, and creates an incompatibility gap.

Unless resolved, it can lead to breakups, separations, and divorces.


  • Who was Sigmund Freud?

    Sigmund Freud was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. He is known as the father of psychoanalysis, which is an approach to psychology that focuses on the unconscious mind. By understanding our unconscious and how it works, we can find freedom from emotional suffering and understand and work toward living healthier, happier lives.

  • Did Sigmund Freud marry his mother?

    No, Freud did not marry his mother. So, there is no question about why did Freud marry his mother Amalia Freud.

  • At what age does the Oedipus complex occur?

    Between 3 to 5 years of age, known as the phallic stage of a child’s development.

  • What is it called when a mother is in love with her son?

    In psychoanalytic theory, it is called the Jocusta complex when a mother develops an incestuous intimate desire for her son.

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Adult Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental wellbeing, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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