What Is an Oedipus Complex?

Explore one of Freud's most controversial yet enduring concepts

Oedipus complex
The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, 1784. Bénigne Gagneraux, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

The Oedipal complex, also known as the Oedipus complex, is a term used by Sigmund Freud in his theory of psychosexual stages of development to describe a boy's feelings of desire for his mother and jealousy and anger toward his father. Essentially, a boy feels like he is competing with his father for possession of his mother. He views his father as a rival for her attentions and affections.

In psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus complex refers to the child's desire for sexual involvement with the opposite sex parent, particularly a boy's erotic attention to his mother.

Freud suggested that the Oedipus complex played and important role in the phallic stage of psychosexual development. He also believed that successful completion of this stage involved identifying with the same-sex parent which ultimately would lead to developing a mature sexual identity.

Understanding the Oedipus Complex

A few important things to know about the Oedipus complex:

  • According to Freud, the boy wishes to possess his mother and replace his father, who the child views as a rival for the mother's affections.
  • The Oedipal complex occurs in the phallic stage of psychosexual development between the ages of three and five.
  • The phallic stage serves as an important point in forming sexual identity.
  • The analogous stage for girls is known as the Electra complex in which girls feel desire for their fathers and jealousy of their mothers.

Freud first proposed the concept of the Oedipal complex in his 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams, although he did not formally begin using the term Oedipus complex until the year 1910.

The term was named after the character in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother.

Resolving the Oedipus Complex

In order to develop into a successful adult with a health identity, the child must identify with the same-sex parent in order to resolve the conflict.

Freud suggested that while the primal id wants to eliminate the father, the more realistic ego knows that the father is much stronger.

According to Freud, the boy then experiences what he called castration anxiety - a fear of both literal and figurative emasculation. Freud believed that as the child becomes aware of the physical differences between males and females, he assumes that the female's penis has been removed and that his father will also castrate him as a punishment for desiring his mother.

In order to resolve the conflict, the boy then identifies with his father. It is at this point that the super-ego is formed. The super-ego becomes a sort of inner moral authority, an internalization of the father figure that strives to suppress the urges of the id and make the ego act upon these idealistic standards.

In The Ego and the Id, Freud explained:

"The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on—in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt."


Freud, S. (1924): The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. Standard Edition, 19:172–179

Freud, S. (1949). The Ego and the id. The Hogarth Press Ltd. London.

Freud, S. (1956). On Sexuality. Penguin Books Ltd.

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