Freud’s concept of the Oedipus Complex is one of those ideas that seems almost to have disappeared from the field of psychotherapy; even much of what is written from the perspective of psychodynamic theory leaves out this central idea. Very few people search the term nowadays on the Internet — about 15K per month, as opposed to 135K who search for information about bipolar disorder symptoms or treatment and 110K apiece for borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. In part, this reflects the trend away from explaining mental illness in terms of its psychological and emotional roots (especially in the unconscious) toward the medical view with its emphasis on diagnostic categories akin to those for physical illness. I believe it also reflects a kind of widespread social repression, where unpopular ideas disappear from view, in many ways due to a misunderstanding of what the oedipal situation actually involves.
Sigmund Freud mostly clearly articulated his ideas about the Oedipus complex in the charming case study of Little Hans (1909), though he also discussed Oedipus in The Interpretation of Dreams (1905) and other early works. In Little Hans, Freud puts forward the theory that every little boy wishes to have sexual intercourse with his mother and wants murder his father in order to gain exclusive possession of her. It’s hard for us to imagine just how provocative such a theory would have been in Freud’s day; we live in a world where Freudian ideas have permeated so many aspects of our culture that it’s virtually impossible to understand how shocking and offensive his contemporaries would have found it. I don’t think people today find it shocking; if anything, they find it silly and misguided, a quaint idea from the early heyday of psychoanalysis, or maybe just plain wrong. That old Sigmund Freud — what a wacky idea! Wasn’t he the guy who talked about penis envy?
People might find the Oedipus complex more relevant if they understood the revisions and additions that have occurred since Freud first introduced the idea. Most importantly, Melanie Klein wrote extensively about the early stages of the Oedipus complex; she believed it unfolded primarily within the context of the feeding relationship: when the baby begins to become aware of the father’s existence, he or she feels him to be a rival for the nourishment and comfort offered by the breast. To me, the Oedipus complex is about emotional competition, in whatever arena; while I have seen clients with unconscious sexual feelings for their mother, I’ve more often found rivalry in the emotional area.
I’ve also seen a lot of competition for the father’s attention, with hostile feelings toward the mother. Jung referred to this as the Electra complex though that term doesn’t seem to have caught on. Many of us now think of the Oedipus complex in a larger, more varied way, as a relationship between three parties (one child and two parents) where the child competes with one parent for the love and affection of the other. It doesn’t need to be sexual to be considered Oedipal. It’s not limited to a boy’s feelings for his mother.
The Oedipus complex also involves the feelings of the parent toward the competing child. Let’s not forget that, in the original story of Oedipus Rex, Laius tries to have his infant son Oedipus put to death when he hears the prophecy. Many fathers feel deeply jealous of the attention babies get from their mothers; husbands often feel sexually deprived after the birth, and may feel that the wife’s involvement with their newborn leaves him out. It’s not unusual for mothers to feel deeply competitive with their daughters, and jealous of the relationship they may have with the father. I’ve heard it many times from female clients; my own sister told me that she didn’t have a decent relationship with our mother until my sister found her own man and got married. She was quite consciously aware that Mom was jealous of her relationship with Dad. Remember the story of Snow White and her vain and jealous step-mother? In the original version of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, it was actually her mother who felt jealous and tried to kill her.
My colleague Marla Estes discusses this issue in a recent post over on our Movies and Mental Health blog, using a film clip from The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to illustrate it. To me, the Oedipal situation is still a vital idea, highly relevant to my psychotherapy practice, and observable everywhere once you start to look for it.