The Modern Father’s Guide to the Oedipus Complex

You didn't marry your mom and your son is not trying to kill you.

Jocasta and Oedipus

Oedipus Rex is a father’s nightmare. Sophocles’ Greek tragedy tells the sordid story of a son, Oedipus, whose biological parents leave him to die as a newborn. He is rescued and, years later, he returns to his hometown only to inadvertently kill his father and marry his mother. Freud’s infamous interpretation of the story, and rise of the “Oedipus Complex” is that all men sort of want to kill their fathers and marry their mothers. But what modern fathers need to know is that it is certainly possible to read Sophocles without Freud’s weird mommy issues.

Because Oedipus Rex is less a tabloid tale of incest and patricide, than it is a confusing saga of self-fulfilling prophecies. Just ask psychotherapist Jeffrey Rubin, who dared to read Sophocles with fresh, non-Freudian eyes. “When I read Oedipus Rex, what struck me is at the begging of the play the parents abandon their kid,” Rubin told Fatherly. “It’s not so much about the Oedipus Complex. I think Freud read that in. He used the play to confirm his theory. It’s more symbolically about the circularity of life. The way we find the exact fate we fear.”

It’s still a psychologically valuable story, Rubin says. Just not one about latent sexual urges. It’s a story for men who vow never to be like their fathers, but end up acting out in anger or committing infidelity. It’s a story for women who swear they’ll never be needy, but create lives in which they never receive enough love or reassurance. “That’s why the play has had staying power over time,” Rubin says. “It pinpoints a unique and seminal aspect of human psychology.”

For those of you who didn’t study Greek mythology in college, Sophocles’ tale begins when King Laius of Thebes is told by an oracle that his future son will kill him and marry his wife, Jocasta. Three days after his son, Oedipus, is born, the couple instruct a shepherd to leave the baby to die. But baby Oedie is rescued by another shepherd and eventually raised by King Polybus of Corinth, who conveniently forgets to tell him that he was adopted from Thebes. Oedipus eventually has his own run-in with an oracle, who let’s him know that he’s doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, so he runs away from home—right back to Thebes. Along the way he gets into a duel and kills Laius, upon which he becomes king of Thebes and marries Jocasta.

Freud interpreted this as a story that chronicles the universal aggression a son has toward his father, alongside the universal sexual desire a son has toward his mother. This odd contention is somewhat supported by the research. Wives and their mother-in-laws can be matched by complete strangers based on resemblance alone, one study shows. Other data indicates that people may be attracted to romantic partners with the same hair and eye color as one of their parents. Scientists suspect this may be because the first faces babies see are that of their parents, and these traits are regarded as familiar, safe and nurturing throughout life.

Rubin acknowledges these studies, and says that some people are definitely predisposed of being attracted to romantic partners that remind them of their parents, but that this attraction tends to be more emotional that sexual. Rather than a universal urge to destroy our fathers and marry our mothers, Rubin says most people share a general urge to embrace their parents’ positive qualities and eradicate their parents’ negative qualities in their own lives.

“We are attracted to those who emotionally resemble our parents, but also offer the promise of healing the problems we had with the parent,” Rubin says. “That’s why people end up repeating the problems they have with their parents or their parents had with each other.”

And why oracles should shut up and mind their own damn business.