In Greek myth Oedipus was the king of Thebes who, in trying to avoid a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, actually unwittingly did so.
The celebrated Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud named one of his most important ideas after the tragic story of Oedipus.
According to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, an Oedipal complex develops after the male infant becomes fixated to his mother during the Oedipal phase of ego development (ages 3-5).
During this time, the infant develops bizarre beliefs which only a child’s mind could produce. He sees or perhaps hears his father and mother lovemaking (called the “primal scene”) and perceives his father as a threat.
His fear intensifies when seeing the father’s penis, which leads the child to irrationally assume that he, himself, has been castrated. The child then demonizes the father and identifies with his apparently ‘all-good’ mother.
He resolves this potent complex by eventually identifying with the father and the external, worldly demands that the father represents to the child.
If his complex goes unresolved, his choice of – and demands from – lovers and marriage partners in subsequent years reflects lingering unconscious infantile, mother-based expectations, which are unrealistic and not grounded in the reality principle.
Freud believed that this was a natural process.
Current trends in psychoanalysis trace the Oedipus complex to earlier conflicts apparently present in the first few years of psychosexual ego development.
While some say that psychoanalysis is a science, others see it as a joke with little or not empirical support to validate its fanciful claims. Although the spirit of Freud’s approach is still present within psychiatry, especially with the almost unquestioned status of the concept of the “unconscious,” the actual content of many of his ideas has fallen by the wayside.
As such, most countries recognize medical psychiatry as a credible discipline (with legal powers and associated responsibilities) while giving less weight to non-medical psychologists and social workers.¹
¹ In Canada, for instance, psychiatry is covered by national health care whereas non-medical therapies (such as Jungian and other holistic psychological approaches) are not.
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