The Oedipus complex, or Oedipal complex, is one of Freud’s most famous theories. Even if you don’t know anything else about the psychologist, you’ve probably heard it mentioned. And yet, chances are, you aren’t quite sure what it means. It has something weird to do with desiring your mother, right? Kind of, but not exactly. Freud’s theory is nuanced and complicated, and this is one the most controversial aspects of his belief system, but it’s worth learning about because it can give insight into a whole host of psychological terms.

Oedipus in Historical Literature

The name for the Oedipus complex comes from the Greek myth by Sophocles. In this story, Oedipus doesn’t know who his real parents are. He grows up, goes through a series of tragic experiences, and ultimately discovers that he has married his birth mother and murdered his birth father. It’s an ancient soap opera.

Psychosexual Stages of Development

We’ll return to the Oedipus complex in a moment. First, though, we need to jump to the stages of psychosexual development as Freud laid them out. Essentially, he believed that each child goes through specific developmental phases that ultimately lead to the creation of their adult personality. People can get stuck in these stages, usually because of their parents’ mistakes, which then causes issues in various areas of their lives. The stages are:

Oral, when the child is consumed with feeding. The conflict comes up around the weaning process. If unresolved, the child can grow up to have issues with drinking, eating, smoking, dependent behavior and/or aggression.
Anal, when the child is potty training. Problems arising from this stage relate to being anal-retentive (rigid, obsessed with order, obsessive) or anal-expulsive (messy and wasteful).
Phallic, when young children discover their libido. If unresolved, this can lead to an adult with low self-esteem, shyness, sexual challenges, and unfair, irresponsible treatment of the opposite sex.
Latent, which is a period of calm while the child develops their social selves. If unresolved, it can lead to immaturity and an inability to form solid relationships as an adult.
Genital, which is the puberty stage. Ultimately, this should lead to becoming a well-balanced person with a healthy interest in others. In Freud’s time this meant developing a one-on-one partnership with someone of the opposite sex, although we know today that’s not the only healthy relationship option for adults.

Basically, each child is supposed to resolve specific life issues through these stages, and if they fail to do so, then certain problems result.

Oedipal Complex in Phallic Stage

The reason we looked at all of those stages is because the Oedipal complex is the main feature of the phallic stage. As mentioned, this is when children start to develop their libidos. They are between the ages of three and sex, and it’s the first time that they really notice that there’s a difference between males and females.

In Freud’s view, boys go through an Oedipal stage, during which they compete with their fathers for their mother’s attention. In other words, they begin to realize that biologically they are similar to dad, and therefore they want to subconsciously take over as man of the house. Going back to the literature, they metaphorically want to kill their fathers and marry their mothers.

Freud didn’t really address the issue of girls feeling similarly. Instead, he came up with the idea that girls develop penis envy at this time. However, Jung came along and coined the term Electra complex, which is basically the female version of the Oedipus complex. In this version, the woman wants to kill her mother and marry her father. If you’ve ever heard a kindergarten girl say that she wants to marry her daddy, it’s perhaps because she’s in the phallic stage of her psychosexual development.

What is The Oedipal Complex Really About?

Of course, most children don’t consciously want to kill one parent and marry the other. Instead, what this is really about is the child’s growing awareness of their gender. A boy, for example, may begin to recognize that he is more like his dad than his mom. At first, he might feel competitive towards the dad. However, if he goes through the stage successfully, he’ll come out of it feeling more identified with the same-sex parent.

One theory is that if this period isn’t resolved successfully, then it can impact relationship choices as an adult. The person tends to seek out partners that are similar to their opposite-sex parent. When a woman says that she has married her father, she obviously hasn’t married her literal birth father but instead has married someone who reminds her a lot of her dad, which suggests that perhaps she didn’t fully resolve the phallic stage of her childhood.

Learning about the Oedipal complex, as well as the other stages of psychosexual development, can give you some insight into where things might have gone awry in your childhood. You can look at specific symptoms in your adult life, trace them back to that stage, and use therapy to explore what happened then and how best to move past it today.

Jennifer Josey LPC LMFT CSAT of Intuitive Pathways Recovery specializes in Sex Addiction Counseling Houston Texas, love addiction, recovery for couples from sex and love addiction, trauma resolution for partners of sex addicts and group therapy. Sexual addiction is a serious problem that affects people of all socioeconomic status, educational status, both males and females and even teenagers and preadolescent children.