Freud and Oedipus: Does Either Still Matter?


Oedipus complex Oedipus complex
Oedipus complex is the idea that young children experience an unconscious desire for their opposite-sex parent and jealousy toward their same-sex parent. Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

History has not been kind to Sigmund Freud. In fact, if Freud, once believed to be among the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, could see what some people today are doing to his legacy — to the very idea of psychoanalysis, his baby — well, he'd probably accuse them of penis envy or something. Castration anxiety. It would not be pretty.

If ol' Sigmund were somehow around today (unlikely; he died in 1939), everybody in the room would probably be trying to act as if he wasn't there, treating him like that crazy old uncle, rolling their eyes at his embarrassing and soooo politically incorrect ramblings.

"Again with the Oedipus complex, Uncle Sigmund? Why don't you come over here and sit down in the corner. Have another ham 'n' cheese pinwheel."

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, the man who introduced us to the id, the ego and the superego, the man who offered up ideas like repression and defense mechanisms — and, yes, penis envy — is not the towering figure he once was. Still, as much as some might try, we still can't seem to shake entirely clear of him or his ideas.

Oedipus, anyone?

What Is the Oedipus Complex?

Let's start with the Oedipus complex, one of Freud's most well-known theories. Remember the story of Oedipus, from Greek mythology? Abandoned at birth, Oedipus fulfilled a prophecy by unknowingly killing his real father, a king, and marrying the king's widow — Oedipus' mother. Oedipus then fathered four kids with dear old mom. After finding out what was what, Mom hung herself, Oedipus gouged out his eyes and ... it was a legit Greek tragedy.

Freud picked that story to name one of his best-known theories. From Simply Psychology:

The Oedipal complex occurs during the Phallic stage of development (ages 3 to 6) in which the source of libido (life force) is concentrated in the erogenous zones of the child's body (Freud, 1905) ... During this stage, children experience an unconscious feeling of desire for their opposite-sex parent and jealousy and envy toward their same-sex parent.

If that's a little too roundabout, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is more to the point:

Oedipus complex, in psychoanalytic theory, [is] a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex; a crucial stage in the normal developmental process.

Along with couches in a doctor's office, the symbolism that lies in dreams, and the power of the unconscious, Oedipus complex is one of Freud's main contributions to his field: the theory that little boys desire their mothers and hate their dads. (He believed the inverse, too, of little girls; that at a certain stage of development, they wanted their dads and despised their moms.)

It's a theory with all sorts of psycho-sexual correlates that is widely discounted these days because, simply, it has no scientific basis in fact. Freud was, in effect, simply theorizing. Just throwing things out there. And in today's prove-it-to-me world, that's not nearly enough.

"I just think that people quietly buried it and stopped talking about it," says psychiatrist Joel Paris, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and a research associate in the department of psychiatry at Jewish General Hospital there. "If you speak to an intelligent psychoanalyst, they'd say, 'That really isn't the main thing. We don't believe that anymore.'"

Sigmund Freud Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is not the towering figure he once was.
Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What Freud Got Wrong

As fields like neuroscience have grown in importance, as scientists have concocted ways to look more closely at the brain and how it works, the Oedipus complex and many other Freud theories just haven't held up. Over time, Freud has become almost persona non grata among psychiatrists, both those who toil in academics and those who work with patients.

"Well, they reject him, mostly," Paris says. "I wrote a short book looking at what the evidence actually shows, both in theory and in practice. There are some things that should be kept and that are supported by evidence, but there's a lot that shouldn't be. In particular, psychoanalysis as a therapy doesn't have the support, except in a very brief form — where you see people maybe for a few months — and that's called brief psychodynamic therapy. That has scientific evidence for it."

Early in 2019, the book Paris mentions — "An Evidence-Based Critique of Contemporary Psychoanalysis: Research, Theory, and Clinical Practice" — was published. In it, he calls for psychoanalysis to tie itself more closely to a scientific and clinical base. The field's very existence, he argues, depends on it.

"Psychoanalysis claimed to be a science but did not function like one. It failed to operationalize its hypotheses, to test them with empirical methods, or to remove constructs that failed to gain scientific support," he wrote in a 2017 paper on the subject. "The field may only survive if it is prepared to dismantle its structure as a separate discipline and rejoin academia and clinical science."

Not only have Freud and his theories fallen mostly out of favor, so has his pride and joy, psychoanalysis. It's been that way for some time.

"Independent studies have begun to converge toward a verdict that was once considered a sign of extremism or even of neurosis," Frederick Crews, one of the world's foremost Freud critics wrote more than 20 years ago, "that there is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas." Analyze that.

Did Freud Get Anything Right?

Freud's Oedipus complex — which he considered at the very core of his work — isn't the only of his theories that have been ravaged by increased scrutiny and advances in science. Another of his ideas was that every memory we have is stored in our minds, but that some are repressed (because of childhood trauma or other reasons). Those repressed memories, he said, could only be mined through psychoanalysis. That premise also has taken a beating as science has discovered more about the intricacies and capabilities of the brain.

Still, even time can't take away the fact that Freud was, inarguably, one of the greatest thinkers of his era, and has remained somewhat influential far beyond it. Even today, a few of Freud's ideas survive and, in some instances, may be better than what is offered by modern science.

"A lot of people in my profession today just write prescriptions. That's all they do all day. And I think they do patients a great disservice, because they don't know how to listen to them or understand their life stories," Paris says. "I think the problem with Freud was, he had been trained as a neuroscientist, in the late 19th century, but there were no tools to apply scientific methods to what he was doing. So he just speculated. He actually thought that you could sort of X-ray people's minds by having them lie on a couch and free associate. It's not true.

"[But] I think the whole idea of understanding people's life story ... is something which we should not get rid of. We need to listen to people. Let's not take all of the psychology out of psychiatry. But let's try to stick to theories where the science is really good."