Since writing my last post about the Oedipus complex, I’ve been thinking more about those situations where we might make use of Freud’s ideas concerning the family triangle; one that occurred to me is a toxic divorce situation of the kind I described in my post on the shame-based divorce.
To summarize the basic ideas in that post: In situations where unconscious shame and mutual idealization have played a large role in a marriage, if the relationship breaks down and the couple divorces, they usually battle one another to see who will be the “winner” and who the “loser”. They often try to enlist the loyalty of their children against one another; the parent who can get a child to turn against the other parent will then feel triumphant over the former spouse. This is a tragic instance of the narcissistic needs of that parent overriding his or her concern for the welfare of the child: desire to take vengeance on their ex drives them to sacrifice the child’s fundamental need for a good relationship with both parents.
This dynamic always damages the child, but it can be doubly toxic when added to an Oedipus complex dynamic. Here’s a scenario that may be familiar to many of you. I’ll describe it in relation to divorced mothers and their sons because I’m more familiar with that situation, though it would also apply to fathers and daughters. In cases where the husband’s infidelity instigated their divorce, the ex-wife may often have legitimate grounds to be angry, but that wouldn’t justify the kind of destructive narcissistic behavior you sometimes see.
I’m thinking of the ex-wife who makes her son into the “little man”, who turns to him for the sort of companionship she might look for with a spouse, and who confides thoughts and concerns inappropriate for a child to hear. She might discuss her financial situation in ways that subtly make the boy feel responsible and protective; she might complain to him about the difficulties of her new status as a single woman and the burdens of running a household alone. Looking to a son to assume some of the chores her ex-husband might have shouldered is one thing; asking him to step into his father’s shoes as confidante and life partner is another.
The ex-wife’s attempts to poison the relationship between father and son make the situation much more lethal for the boy. You may recall that in Freud’s view, the Oedipus complex is “resolved” when the son identifies with his father, internalizes him as part of his conscience as conceived of in the id ego superego model of the mind. That resolution implies an intact family, where the father’s authority opposes the son’s desire for exclusive possession of his mother; it depends upon the boy’s respect for his father and an awareness that the father doesn’t actually want to retaliate for those patricidal impulses the son may have harbored.
So what happens when the mother enlists her son as a surrogate husband and at the same time tries to destroy his relationship with his dad? In a particularly toxic way, it confirms the Oedipal fantasy. By trashing her ex-husband, she subtly invites the boy to “kill off” his father; how then can he “resolve” his Oedipus complex in the usual way, by internalizing a positive authority as part of his superego? Even if you don’t find the Oedipus complex a compelling idea, you’ll probably agree that we do internalize our parents as part of ourselves. What effect will it have on a boy’s sense of self to internalize a damaged father? I think it undermines that sense of self and encourages a hatred of authority, even legitimate authority, that will handicap him in his ability to navigate roles and relationships in the world at large.
It’s interesting to me that in my practice, I rarely make interpretations that concern the Oedipus complex. It’s more something I see as I look around me in the world-at-large. So much of the comments I make to my clients concerns the mother-infant dyad (issues about neediness, emotional dependency and helplessness) or shame and damage to our earliest sense of self. Maybe issues arising from the Oedipus complex have more to do with later development; most of the clients I’ve seen have struggled with first-year-of-life type issues or come from shattered families. Now that I’ve been thinking about the Oedipus complex, though, I’ll be on the lookout for more instances; I’ll let you know if I observe anything noteworthy.
And in the meantime, if any of you has an interesting anecdote that illustrates the Oedipus complex at work, please let me know.