The child’s readiness to enter the Oedipal phase

We have to remember that Freud’s intent with the case report of Little Hans was to trace the neuroses of adults to their genetic roots in childhood rather than to place the vicissitudes of the Oedipus complex into a developmental context. Freud was not at that time concerned with developmental experiences that preceded the oedipal period. Present-day analysts, regardless of their theoretical orientation, would have to take the developmental achievements prior to the oedipal experiences into consideration in order to assess the child’s capacity to deal with the affects that are associated with this developmental event. For example, Silverman (1980), recognizing that Freud did not have available at that time the necessary theoretical tools, “completed” the case report by adding to it the “pregenital factors:” Silverman pointed to Hans’s “anal-sadistic resentment and jealousy of his mother’s babies and babymaking capacity and his phallic wish to urinate into his mother to impregnate her”; and how the child’s “submission over the years to frequent enemas contributed to a passive-feminine identification with his mother, and the wish to be impregnated and delivered of babies” (p. 109). And Kohut (1977), from a self-psychological perspective, stated that: “the presence of a firm self is a precondition for the experience of the Oedipus complex” (p. 227).

The actual experiencing of the Oedipal passions

The affects associated with the oedipal phase-sexual stirrings and the desire to possess the parent of the opposite sex sexually, competition, jealousy and murderous wishes toward the parent of the same sex, and, most important, castration anxiety - are viewed very differently by traditionalists and self psychologists. In traditional theory, the inherently conflictual nature of the experience and the inevitability of castration anxiety makes repression mandatory, walling off the conflict and enabling the ego to turn to the next developmental phase, latency. Because of its incestuous and murderous content, the walled-off conflict remains burdened by guilt and therefore becomes forever the potential source of a neurosis. This essentially pathological view of a normal developmental phase can best be explained by the fact that Freud had conceptualized the Oedipus complex as this may occur developmentally on the basis of reconstructions from the analyses of adults; the case of Little Hans was to confirm what he already “knew”.

Obviously, psychoanalysts have only reconstructed data available for postulating developmental experiences. Kohut too depended on such data for his constructions. His observations, however, led him to a conclusion very different from Freud’s. He found that at the end of their analyses, some patients with primary self-disorders developed an oedipal constellation. This he considered to be the positive result of the consolidation of the self the patient had never achieved before. He observed that this “brief oedipal phase is accompanied by a warm glow of joy, a joy that has all the earmarks of an emotionality that accompanies a maturational or developmental achievement” (Kohut, 1977, p. 228). From such clinical observations, Kohut concluded that in normal development, where parents experience joy and pride in the child’s developmental achievements, the oedipal phase, rather than being fraught with guilt and anxiety, is experienced joyfully.

In 1977 Kohut still retained the idea that the conflictual aspects of the Oedipus complex are the genetic focus of the development of Guilty Man and of the genesis of the psychoneuroses. His emphasis on parental responsiveness to the child’s oedipal experiences, however, indicated a radical shift from the inevitable conflicts created by drive maturation to the potentially pathogenic impact of parental attitudes and responses to this forward move in development. He argued convincingly that the dramatic, conflict-ridden

Oedipus complex of classical analysis, depicting the child’s aspirations to be crumbling under the impact of castration fear, is not a primary maturational necessity but rather the result of frequently occurring failures of narcissistically disturbed parents to respond empathically to their oedipal-age children. He called into question the classical conception of the Oedipus complex as a ubiquitous, normal, human experience and posited it as a manifestation of an already pathological phenomenon. He distinguished between a relatively silent and joyful normal developmental phase during which, the child is able to integrate “his libidinal and aggressive strivings” and an Oedipus complex in which normal development becomes derailed, resulting in the formation of an infantile neurosis that may later give rise to a psychoneurosis:

Subsequent to an oedipal phase that is marred by the failure of the parents to respond healthily to their child, a defect in the child’s self is set up. Instead of further development of a firmly cohesive self able to feel the glow of healthy pleasure in its affectionate and phase-appropriate sexual functioning and able to employ self-confident assertiveness in the pursuit of goals, we find throughout life a continuing propensity to experience the fragments of love (sexual fantasies) rather than love and the fragments of assertiveness (hostile fantasies) rather than assertiveness and to respond to these experiences -which always include revival of the unhealthy selfobject experiences of childhood -with anxiety | Kohut, 1984 pp. 24—25].

The resolution of the conflict

The resolution of the Oedipus complex, which results in the child’s identification with the same-sex parent, has particular importance for classical theory. This is the developmental event that finalizes the construction of a repression barrier and the internalization of standards and values; the establishment of the superego as a relatively separate mental agency. Since self psychology views the psyche as an open system, no developmental experience is conceptualized with the same finality as is the resolution of the Oedipus complex in classical theory. The processes of idealization and the need to be mirrored by idealized others continue into adult life; they continue to make a contribution to the development of values and ideals and to the strengthening of the gender-related features of the personality. The ongoing developmental significance of these selfobject experiences can best be appreciated in the need of young adults to be approved and valued by their idealized superiors and in their need to be mirrored in their gender-characteristic attributes in order to feel sexually desirable.

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