The Oedipal Complex

Why does the idea of the Oedipal Complex elicit such negative responses?

Posted Apr 08, 2018

I have been thinking more about the Oedipal Complex since both Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal alleged that before Donald Trump had sex with them, he said, "You remind me of my daughter."

The Oedipal Complex is one of Freud's most infamous concepts. (Infantile sexuality is right up there also.) While Oedipus was a male, 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 understood that the developmental stage took place in girls as well as boys, but he term "Electra complex" was introduced by Carl Jung.

I say it was one of Freud's most infamous concepts because every time I had the occasion to mention it in teaching at Brooklyn College or the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, even at my psychoanalytic institute, it was greeted with rejection and disdain by students. They found the idea of sexual feelings toward a parent so abhorrent that they could not even discuss the idea without contempt. Being literal about the Oedipal dynamic aids the denial by making the concept seem silly. I explained that these feelings have been repressed and are unconscious.

London Scout/Unspash
Source: London Scout/Unspash

Freud did not think that a 4-year-old boy walks around thinking about having intercourse with his mother. If he does consciously think about that, he has likely been overstimulated sexually and probably needs professional help. However, he might want to sleep in Mommy's bed when Daddy is away. If Mommy accedes, that feeds the boy's fantasies about replacing his father and might buttress his resentment at Daddy when he returns and takes his place in bed next to Mommy. Similarly, if Mommy walks around naked or is otherwise sexually stimulating, that will make it more difficult for the boy to resolve his Oedipal feelings. But my students would have none of it. Of course, I understood that as denial, but I did not push it.

The inverse idea, that parents have sexual feelings for their children, would probably cause an even more intense negative reaction. I didn't even bring that up! There's nothing more threatening to most people, than the idea of having sexual feelings towards your parents — other than the idea that parents have sexual feelings toward their children! It is so unthinkable to everyone, except Donald Trump, that we don't even have a name for that dynamic. Perhaps we should call it the Agamemnon Complex.

Why are these ideas so disturbing? After all, sexuality is part of us throughout our lives — as children, adolescents, adults, parents, grandparents. The relationship between parents and children is both psychologically and physically intimate, so, of course, there will be sexual feelings going both ways at different times. I have learned from my patients that many people have difficulty distinguishing between feelings (or fantasies) and actions.

If you equate feelings and actions, the feeling that you wish Daddy didn't come back and you could sleep in Mommy's bed forever, is indistinguishable from killing your father and having sex with your mother.

If you equate feelings and actions, feeling a rush when you see your daughter's developing breasts is the same as incest.

Equating feelings and actions makes some feelings so frightening that we have to repress or deny them, or split them off and act them out in some displaced fashion. But what psychic price do we pay for that? For some men the price might be staying distant from their daughters so as not to risk acting out their sexual impulses. I have had several women patients who have reported with great pain that their fathers withdrew from them when they reached puberty and male patients who cannot stand it if their mothers kiss them or embrace them. Sadly, these are symptoms of the lack of resolution of the Oedipal, Electra, and Agamemnon complexes.

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