The Oedipus Complex: What Is It? An Obsolete Concept?

Last updated by Lauren Hart

“Oh, you’ve got a daughter? You’ll see that she’ll prefer her father when she grows up, it’s the Oedipus complex, after all!” Have you never heard that kind of phrase? I have, and it works with boys and their mothers too. Except that now that I know what the Oedipus complex is, I find it quite absurd to still hear this kind of talk. But what exactly is it? Why is it an outdated theory? Let’s take a look at the Oedipus complex and why we need to get rid of it.

The Oedipus Complex: What Is It? An Obsolete Concept?

What is the Oedipus complex in psychoanalysis?

The Oedipus complex is a concept from psychoanalysis theorized by the famous Sigmund Freud. It was inspired by the Greek tragedy written by Sophocles.

The legend of Oedipus
Oedipus is said to have been abandoned at birth by his parents. As an adult, he kills a man in a quarrel and marries the man’s wife. Except that the man he killed was actually his father and the woman he married was his mother.

Freud then used this myth to theorize that from the age of around 3, children would want to get closer to the parent of the opposite sex and eliminate the parent of the same sex. So a little boy would be in love with his mother and a little girl with her father. Admittedly, some behaviors change from this age onwards, but isn’t this theory a little obsolete? Yes, completely, and here’s why.

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An unverified complex

Almost everyone has heard of the Oedipus complex. Some people believe in it like hell, but the problem is that the existence of this complex has never been verified by empirical evidence. In other words, Freud was never able to demonstrate that a child was formally attracted to the parent of the opposite sex, as researcher Frederick Crews explains in his book “Freud: The Making of an Illusion”.

Even worse than the lack of evidence, advancing this theory would be tantamount to attributing sexual desire to a child 😥. Admittedly, children become aware of their bodies and genitals at this age, but in no way do they understand sexuality and desire. The consequence? It’s that some people use the Oedipus complex to justify acts of incest. This gives the aggressors an excuse, because in Freud’s theory, it’s the child who’s at the origin of this drive, not the adult (so we’re at sixes and sevens 🙃!).

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Freud’s questioning

Freud is still very much in the limelight, except that his ideas and work are from another century. In particular, he was the one who attributed hysteria to women, explaining that the only cause of our ills was sexuality 😅. In general, Freud had an obsession with sex and placed it at the center of his research.

In an interview for the newspaper L’écho, Filip Buekens, professor of analytic philosophy, has this to say about Freud:

“It’s an understatement to say that psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science [...]. Freud’s theories don’t allow us to understand things – which is one of the fundamental needs of human beings – but give us the illusion that we do. Our brains are designed to make connections between things quickly, even if they don’t exist. We see images in clouds, in inkblots, etc. Freud cleverly abused this. He came up with a few empty concepts – repression, fear of castration, anal fixation, the Oedipus complex – which in fact make it possible to interpret anything. [...]”

Not to mention that at the time, it was inconceivable that there could be same-sex parents. Yes, we were a long way from the LGBTQIA+ movement and the freedom to love whoever you want. So how do you apply the Oedipus complex to a couple of women or a couple of men? Well, it’s simply not possible, which proves once again that it’s a theory that’s got nothing to do with our times 🙅‍♀️.

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How can we justify children’s behavior without the Oedipus complex?

What we need to understand is that Freud’s vision of childhood behavior was highly stereotyped and binary. In itself, this may be understandable, since he lived in an era with deeply rooted traditional values and where sex was taboo.

He was certainly able to observe certain behaviors in children, two in particular. The first is that around the age of 3, children become aware of their genitals. This is NOR-MAL, as they become aware of their existence in a general way and explore their body and its reactions. The second is that there’s always a phase when a child prefers one parent more than the other, but attachment theory explains this phenomenon better than Freud’s writings.

If we have the impression that we’re seeing an Oedipus complex in our child, it’s above all because society pushes the young to construct either a feminine or a masculine identity and to integrate heterosexuality. So we’re a long way from a non-gendered education, not to mention the fact that these days we make a distinction between gender and sex, something Freud would never have done in his day 😬. So just let Oedipus be a Greek tragedy!

Editor’s note: Everything becomes clearer!

Now you know everything there is to know about the Oedipus complex and its limits! We hope this article has shed some light on the subject. If you’re worried about the way your child(ren) are behaving, or if your relationship with your parents isn’t easy, and you’re suffering as a result, make an appointment with a psychologist. Take the time to take stock, understand your situation, and find the keys to a happier existence.

🤗 Understanding yourself, accepting yourself, being happy... It’s here and now!

#BornToBeMe

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Article presented by Lauren Hart

Writing is a beautiful means of expression that I cannot do without. It has allowed me to channel my hypersensitivity, plus I love writing about psychology and personal development. For me, self-understanding is the best way to move forward!

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