Some thoughts on the Oedipus Conflict

I have always looked at psychoanalytic theory as more than sexual or involving conflicts between ‘mother’ and ‘father’.  I’ve always felt that a lot of psychoanalytic theory is hitting far short of the mark.  A good example of this is the Oedipus Conflict.


Typically, the Oedipus Conflict is portrayed as a person’s sexual desire for one of its parents and being jealous of the other, perhaps wanting their death.  Over the years I have begun to see it as more than that.  To me, it is a reference to the dilemma in life of love/hate and the conflict this generates.  In reality, the conflict with the ‘mother’ or ‘father’ is just one aspect of this crisis. 

In life we all have conflicts between a loving of something and a hating of something.  In some sense, it’s like a tug-of-war, the opposite ends of the mind as if pulling itself apart.  It’s like our self is being torn apart by this conflict.  For some of us, this can lead to great conflicts in life.  Some people struggle with hatred.  Some struggle with love.  Others, struggle with both emotions.  There are many variations of this conflict.  It may or may not follow the ‘Oedipus’ pattern. 

Since the parents are so important in our development the parental aspect of this conflict is often very critical in our lives but it, by no means, is the only manifestation of this conflict.  In many ways, a newborn is thrown into this conflict when it first experiences pain or discomfort (hunger, cold, etc.).   In that sense, this is the ‘primal Oedipus conflict’, before the parental image even arrive at the scene.  The newborn, at the beginning of life, has conflicts trying to reconcile these emotions. 

Life, really, is nothing but this great extreme of emotions being played out before us.  These extremes – love/hate – leaves in between a great spectrum of emotions that blend into one another much like a rainbow.  As we grow this spectrum of emotions develop and become very complicated. 


The Oedipus Conflict not only describes emotions that are reactive to a situation but emotions that we must actively control and use productively.  In many ways, that is what makes this conflict so critical.  In fact, many problems with the Oedipus Conflict does not seem to involve dealing with difficult emotions (reacting), as often supposed, but in using those emotions and controlling them (acting).  Due to its reacting and acting situation it encompasses our whole being, the whole self.   As a result, it has a big impact on our character. 


Because of its active and controlling aspect it creates a new part of the mind – the super ego.  This is that part of us that controls our emotions and passion.  I do not believe the super ego is just a moral imposing or a representation of the parents.  It is that part of us that must control our emotions – both good and bad – in a productive healthy way.  The super ego, then, is critical in life. 

The super ego needs representations in the outer world.  It is a projection of an internal reality onto external reality.  It needs external representations to make this internal reality real.  In that sense, the super ego is a result of a union of internal and external representation.  This means that the super ego is critical in making a person ‘in the world’.  By making a person ‘in the world’ it makes meaning and use in the world critical for the person. 


As I said above, the newborn first confronts the Oedipus conflict when it confronts pain and discomfort.  This means that actual ‘love’ comes later in the development of life.   In addition, when the newborn feels pain and discomfort it gets upset.  This means that actual ‘hate’ comes later in the development of life.  As a result, the whole Oedipus conflict, as it is usually portrayed, is actually based on a later phase of life when it has developed more.

What, then, is the conflict in the ‘primal Oedipus conflict’ if love and hate have not been established yet?

‘Love’ corresponds to a feeling of comfort, of being calm, without conflict.  This is a condition of minimal mental effort.  ‘Hate’ corresponds to a getting upset and crying.  It takes up great mental energy.  In addition, the crying out shows the instinctual sense that someone will help it.  In that sense, the newborns first element of ‘being in the world’ is in crying – ‘hate’.  The resting state – ‘love’ – is not a being in the world. 

Later, as we grow, things change.  New emotions develop.

 When the newborn begins to open its eyes it perceives the world.  Slowly, he starts to reach out and interact with the world.  It then begins to place the newborn as ‘in the world’.  ‘Love’, then, is a perceiving of the world and a reaching out to it.  It begins to react to the caregiver, smiling and laughing.  It turns, no doubt, into a loving of someone and of things in the world. 

But there are still discomforts.  The newborn begins to experience anger and aggression and, perhaps, hatred (though we cannot say).  And so the ‘hate’ element develops and grows into newer forms. 

When the newborn gets out of the newborn phase the basic ‘love/hate’ relationship is established.


As the child grows the love/hate relationship takes on whole new dimensions and forms.  A lot of the joys, sorrow, conflicts, etc. of childhood all revolve around this theme.  In some sense, childhood is nothing but a learning to reconcile the conflict.  This is done in stages corresponding to the growing of the mind and body.  By so doing the super ego is formed which helps into the development of a stable adult mind. 


In many ways, the Oedipus Conflict describes a situation where we are thrown into a world and the world pulls us in love in one direction and hate in the other.  Being pulled apart we have to seek a balance between the two, which reconciles the contrary emotions.  This balance is achieved by a part of the mind called the super ego.

I’ve often felt that the ‘need to suffer’, as is practiced and stated in many religions has origins, really, in the newborns first sense of ‘being in the world’ – feeling discomfort  (for the same reason, it seems that to develop a sense that you are living or alive often tends to involve a seeking of discomfort and pain in life).  At the same time, there is a ‘need for peace’ that is also stated by many religions.  This also seems to stem from the newborn in a calm state.  And so, it seems, many principles found in religion has origins in the ‘primal Oedipus conflict’.  These same principles are found in common sense living as well.  This shows the importance of even the first stages of this conflict in our lives.

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