The Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus complex is considered the cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis. It is one of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalytic theory, both to explain the formation of the personality structure and to understand the clinic.

Regarding the theory, the Oedipus complex constitutes the central axis of the drive theory and Freudian metapsychology, since from it the psychic functioning and the formation of the personality are explained. ANDAt the time, this marked a milestone and was a revolution, since this new approach started from the principle of psychic causality, based on the unconscious, to explain the formation of the personality.

The importance of the Oedipus complex in the clinic lies in its causality, where depending on its development and resolution,  a determined personality structure will develop and with it the generation of symptoms in the different structural modalities (psychosis, neurosis, perversion).

What is the Oedipus complex?

To begin with, it is necessary to clarify that the use of the technical term -complex- in psychoanalysis refers to a conflict. Thus, the meaning  is radically different from its use in psychology or popular slang, where it refers to “being self-conscious” or “having complexes.”

Therefore, the Oedipus complex refers to a conflict based on an organized set of loving and hostile desires that the child experiences towards his parents. Freud defines it as the unconscious desire to maintain an incestuous sexual relationship with the parent of the opposite sex – the mother – and to eliminate the father of the same sex – parricide.

“For the first time the child must exchange pleasure for social dignity.”

-Sigmund Freud-

The psychologist Natalie Kennedy, assures that the child feels that there is a competition and, during these years, he will experience intense feelings of rejection, jealousy, failure, inferiority and pain every time his parents are together and notice that they are getting along” . Kennedy affirms that because of this sense of competition, it  is important that the child perceives that the father, the mother and he, work as a team.

Formally, Freud gives complex status to the Oedipus complex in his work ¨Five lectures on Psychoanalysis¨ (1910). We say formally because it is well known that he had been using this term since 1897, referring to Sophocles’ masterpiece called ¨ Oedipus the King.¨

Freud uses the Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex to account for the universality of the ambivalence that the child feels towards his parents, as well as the development of the hetero and homosexual components. A matter that will be taken up again in adolescence, where there is a transformation of sexuality and the detachment of parental authority.

What is the importance of the Oedipus complex?

Freud, in his work ¨Three essays for a sexual theory¨ (1905), assures that in children the incestuous fantasy of expelling and replacing the rival parent, that is to say the father for the boy, and the mother for the girl, is recurrent. A fantasy that would elicit both guilt and fear of punishment.

The defense mechanisms would be a “natural” response to this dynamic,  to give a resolution to these wishes. The defense mechanisms that will act will be different depending on the type of emerging personality. In the case of neurosis, repression will allow the oedipal resolution, while in the case of psychosis the oedipal resolution would be given by foreclosure and in perversion that of denial.

“Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity .

-Sigmund Freud-

The defense mechanisms used by each person to solve the Oedipus complex will determine the structure of their personality, and therefore will also condition how they face and account for the external world, and also the internal one. Jaques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst very attached to Freud’s current, is the one who will best explain the role that foreclosure and denial play as defense mechanisms.

Now, delving into the role played by the Oedipus complex regarding the feelings of ambivalence that may exist towards parents, there is a function of this complex that stands out above all others: it allows the introduction of the child into the norm – the law – and culture. Freud refers to this in his work ¨Totem and Taboo¨ from 1913, when he writes about the primitive horde.

Relationship between Totem and Taboo and the Oedipus complex

In the work of Totem and Taboo, regret and feelings of guilt, which arose in the horde after the murder of the totem, led to the establishment of a new social order based on exogamy.  That is to say, in the prohibition -or taboo- of possessing the women of the clan. At the same time, they gave way to totemism -tabulation of killing the totem -figure that symbolically replaces the father-.

The prohibitions of totemism (incest and killing the totem) represent the two central unconscious desires of the Oedipal conflict. Freud concludes in this work that the Oedipus complex is the central condition of totemism, therefore, universal and the foundation of culture in any human society.

Freud articulates the Oedipus complex with the castration complex, which is the reaction to sexual intimidation or the restriction of sexual practice during early childhood. The castration complex will be the consequence of the establishment of the norm, the prohibition introduced by the father figure.

The threat of castration (in the boy) or the idea of ​​having been castrated (in the girl) will give rise to the mechanism of repression of the first sexuality.  Later, in adolescence, it will allow an exogamous choice or object.

Thus, after the action of repression (defense mechanism), in neurotics the establishment of a very important psychic instance will appear: the  superego. This instance will produce a psychic order, and it will do so through the introduction of the social norm. A norm that is also attributed to the father figure. This introjection of the law will allow the child to begin to order his internal world taking into account external desires and demands. 

Functions of the Oedipus complex

The Oedipus complex will be a fundamental pillar for psychoanalytic theory. Freud attributed different functions to it:

  • The finding of a love object that derives from the resolution of ambivalent feelings towards parents.
  • Acceptance of the law of the prohibition of incest.
  • Access to genitality, as a person already constituted: with its own attributes and personality characteristics.
  • Constitution of the different psychic instances, especially the superego as a product of the assimilation of paternal authority.
  • Identification to an ideal.
  • Acceptance of one’s own sex.

After what we have said, it can be seen that the Oedipus complex, for Freud, is framed within  a triangular relationship formed by the mother, the father and the child. Where the resolution of this “triangle” will condition the child’s personality, together with the introduction of the norm that will allow the assimilation of a social and cultural order.

“Civilization began the first moment a pissed-off man threw a word instead of a rock.”

-Sigmund Freud-

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