Oedipal Complex

Published on September 24th, 2021

Updated on January 2nd, 2024

Oedipal Complex

The Oedipal complex (also known as the Oedipus complex) is a theory that was introduced to the study of human development by Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud is known to be a founder of the field of psychology. He proposed many theories of the human mind and development. One of his notable contributions was the theory of the psychosexual stages of development. This theory refers to the development of sexuality.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

In the theory of psychosexual development, it is noted that children experience the Oedipal complex. It is a theory that is considered by some to be controversial, as it suggests that a part of a child’s development is the experience of two distinct urges. These two urges are:

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The Oedipal complex is based on a tragic story in Greek mythology named Oedipus. In the story, Oedipus, an orphaned boy, grows up to unknowingly kill his father (the king) and marry his mother (the queen). When Oedipus learns that the king he killed for the throne and the queen he married to take his place as king were his parents, he faced intense guilt and despair. Freud took themes from this story to help create his theory of the Oedipal Complex.

The Oedipal Complex

Freud theorized that children develop a sense of desire for their opposite-sex parent. The Oedipal complex is a term used to refer to a boy’s desire for his mother. Through this feeling of desire and watching his mother interact with his father as a couple, the boy also develops jealousy and rivalry against his father. Similarly, a girl can develop a desire for her father and similar feelings of rivalry against her mother.

According to Freud, children’s desire for their opposite-sex parent is repressed. This means the desire is pushed down into the unconscious mind. This is thought to be due to fear of the opposite-sex parent. Specifically, young boys fear the idea of retaliation against their fathers.

Even though the child is not consciously aware of the desire, the feelings do serve a purpose. They play a key role in the attachment that develops between the child and each parent. Freud also states in his theory that the purpose of the Oedipal complex is to develop a healthy sexual identity. The Oedipal complex typically resolves at the end of the phallic stage.

The Phallic Stage Of Psychosexual Development

According to Freud, the Oedipal complex is experienced in children. These children are in the phallic stage of psychosexual development. During this stage, a child (around age 3 to 4) will begin to explore their genitals.

The phallic stage marks a period of early stages of personality development. It is also the stage in which children tend to use their parents as models for identity development. Boys will typically identify with their fathers, as girls will with their mothers. Through identifying with their same-sex parent, a rivalry develops. The child becomes jealous of the intimacy shared with their opposite-sex parent.

The Electra Complex

The Oedipal complex sparked interest in many professionals in the field of psychology. While some opposed the theory, others considered its legitimacy. Among those professionals was Carl Jung. Carl Jung was among the first to study the unconscious mind. Jung expanded on Freud’s theory of the Oedipal Complex. Through collaboration with Freud, Jung proposed the Electra complex.

According to the Electra complex, a girl realizes that her desire for her father cannot be fulfilled. This is because of the role of her mother in the family dynamic. The girl also feels fearful of retaliating against her mother. In realizing that she cannot replace the role of her mother, she redirects her desires to other males. The desire is generalized to males in general. This generalization promotes the development of a healthy sexual identity. 

Penis Envy

Jung suggested that girls experience the Oedipal complex differently. Agreeing with Jung, Freud proposed the concept of penis envy. Penis envy refers to a girl’s realization of the difference between male anatomy and female anatomy. A girl recognizes that she does not have a penis herself. She blames her mother for not completing her anatomy and providing her with a penis. A girl does not act on these resentful feelings, however. She represses the feelings and instead begins to mimic her mother’s behavior. 


It is important to note that the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex and the Electra complex is the development of a healthy sexual identity. This initial identity is developed during childhood. Freud does not account for his theories on homosexuality in his theory of psychosexual development.

The purpose of the Oedipal complex is the resolution of the phallic stage. Through the resolution comes the development of a healthy sexual identity during childhood. This identity develops through how the child relates to each parent.

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