What Does the Oedipus Complex Mean & How Does It Work

The Oedipal complex (also known as the Oedipal complex) is addressed in literary criticism, psychoanalytic theory, and popular culture. Sigmund Freud first introduced it as a psychosexual development theory in his book The Interpretation of Dreams 1899.

Although some may say that Freud’s theory is not supported by current research, the myth of the Oedipal complex cannot be denied as its influence is traced in many cultural mediums. So, if you’ve been wondering what the Oedipal complex is, this article is for you.

What Is Oedipal Complex?

In psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus complex describes a stage in psychosexual development when a child develops sexual feelings for the parent of the opposite sex and emotional jealousy toward the parent of the same sex. The term comes from a character in Greek mythology, Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. 

In the Oedipal complex, a boy becomes attracted to his mother and jealous of his father. As a result, he feels anger toward his father and tries to displace these feelings onto other boys to compete with them for his mother’s attention. The girl version of this would be called the Electra complex, which involves attraction and jealousy towards one’s father.

How Does Oedipus Complex Develop?

The Oedipus complex is a universal phenomenon that develops in every child. It begins to develop at the age of 3-5 when children understand the concept of family relations and gender roles—the Oedipus complex results from a child’s observation of his parent’s relationship and feelings towards them.

Children’s desire plays the primary role in developing this complex for exclusive love from their parents. Another critical factor affecting the development of the Oedipus complex is gender identity. Freud suggested that in a boy’s psychosexual development, he passes through five stages:

  • The oral stage (birth to 18 months)
  • The anal stage (18 months to 3 years)
  • The phallic stage (3 to 5 years)
  • The latent period (5 to 12 years)
  • The genital stage (12 years onward)

The Oedipal complex is one of childhood development’s five psychosexual stages that occurs in the phallic stage. Freud believed that during this stage of development, children start becoming aware of their genitals and develop sexual feelings for the parent of the opposite sex (usually the mother). 

He thought it was essential to analyze the effects of this complex on adult behavior because he believed that unresolved conflicts from this period would affect a person’s relationships in adulthood and can lead to lifelong neuroses and other psychological problems later in life. 

Signs of Oedipus Complex

Freud believed that all children go through this process as a regular part of development. Some signs that a child is experiencing the Oedipus complex include:

  • Wishes or fantasies of being close to the parent of the opposite sex (for example, wishes to marry one’s mother or father)
  • Wishes or fantasies of hurting or killing the parent of the same sex (for example, wishes to kill one’s father)
  • Inappropriate sexual feelings toward members of the opposite sex
  • Fear and anxiety about sexual feelings toward members of the opposite sex
  • A desire to possess someone attractive

Oedipal Complex vs. Electra Complex

As mentioned above, the Oedipal complex is a psychoanalytic term used to describe a child’s confusion over sexual identity and romantic attraction. Freud proposed that every boy wants to have sex with his mother and kill his father. This would make the boy jealous of any male figure between him and his mother.

On the other hand, the Electra complex is similar to the Oedipal complex, but it applies to girls instead of boys. Carl Jung introduced the term to describe a similar unconscious sexual desire in girls and how it manifests. 

However, according to Freudian theory, girls go through the same feelings as boys when they begin developing their sexuality. Instead of having sex with their mothers, they want sex with their fathers. This results in girls growing up feeling jealous of their mothers.

In both cases, the underlying theme is sexual attraction and affection between two people. There can be a strong element of envy involved when one sibling feels jealous of another sibling because they possess something they want but do not have (i.e., attention from parents).

Resolution of Oedipal Complex

The resolution of the Oedipus complex is characterized by a shift in libido from the parent of the opposite sex to the parent of the same sex. This change can be understood as an identification with the same-sex parent, which results in the internalization of this figure and its traits.

Simply put, it occurs when the boy becomes aware that his father is superior to him and has sexual relations with his mother. This awareness leads him to identify with his father and give up his sexual desire for his mother. The girl resolves her Oedipus complex by identifying with her mother and giving up her sexual desire for her father.

Freud believed that children must necessarily outgrow their desire for their parents; object-relations theory suggests that such feelings can persist into adulthood and are important ingredients of adult love relationships.

For him, resolving the Oedipal complex was necessary for normal development because it allowed children to separate from their parents and form their own identities. However, he also assumed that some children never resolved this conflict and remained fixated on their parents of the opposite sex. Freud believed that children develop an “independent ego after successfully resolving the Oedipal conflict.”

Consequences of Unresolved Oedipal Complex

What if the Oedipus complex is not resolved? This question has been asked since Freud first developed his theories on psychosexual development. Some psychologists believe that a child can remain fixated at one stage of development or another.

The most obvious manifestation of unresolved Oedipal issues comes from sexual perversions. If a child is forced to repress their attraction toward one parent (usually the father), they may begin acting out that attraction by engaging in inappropriate sexual activities with other people — particularly those who resemble their parent in some way. People who have unresolved Oedipal issues may display some of the following behaviors:

  • They may be attracted to their own sex or gender or feel uncomfortable with their own sex or gender.
  • They may have trouble identifying with their father or mother, which can lead to problems forming relationships with other people later in life.
  • They may suffer from low self-esteem and trouble trusting others because they don’t know who they are.
  • They may also struggle with isolation, depression, and fear because they don’t feel they belong anywhere.

Criticism and Controversies of Oedipus Complex

Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex has been criticized on many fronts. Some critics argue that Freud’s theory is sexist; others claim it is too narrow and fails to account for gender differences in human psychology. Still, others claim that Freud’s theory is based on little more than conjecture and speculation. 

In particular, feminists have taken issue with Freud’s over-emphasis on sexual desire in developing male subjectivity. Feminists such as Kate Millett and Juliet Mitchell have criticized Freudian psychoanalysis for failing to consider the role of child abuse in female development, while other feminists like Nancy Chodorow have sought to expand psychoanalytic theory by emphasizing how social structures shape individual experience.

Another criticism of the Oedipus complex is that it doesn’t consider how different people’s experiences may vary. For example, we can look at how children are raised in different cultures or religions.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the Oedipus complex is a psychology theory with many wit and figures. It deals with the rather specific phenomenon of children who have sexual desires for the parent of the opposite sex. The main point of this blog is that the Oedipus complex greatly affects the child’s psyche and helps to create a blueprint for future behavior. 

The result of all this is that when a child reaches adulthood, unconscious remnants of childhood memory are still present in their minds and can trigger emotional responses.


  • Paris, J. (1976). The Oedipus Complex: A Critical Re-Examination. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, 21(3), 173–179.
  • Hartke, R. (2016). The Oedipus complex: A confrontation at the central cross‐roads of psychoanalysis. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 97(3), 893–913.
  • Karlsson, G. (2016). Phallic Stage. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1–4.
  • Psychoanalysis And Feminism: A Radical Reassessment Of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New ed of 2 Revised ed). (2000). Basic Books.

Hi, I am Happy. I'm a professional writer and psychology enthusiast. I love to read and write about human behaviors, the mind, mental health-related topics, and more.