Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Oedipal Triangle: Freud Lives

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 13, 2011

  Elaine lives out Freud’s hypothesis that negotiating the oedipal triangle is one of the big challenges of development. Elaine is  thirteen, loves both her parents, yet her parents do not love each other. Gloria and Edward, Elaine’s parents, feel that it was a mistake to get married, but they cannot get divorced because “it will hurt the children.” Instead, Gloria and Edward live completely separate lives. Gloria goes to Church every Sunday. Edward does not think much of religion. Elaine is forced to go to Church, even though Edward says “that’s ridiculous.” Elaine is rude to Edward, and by Edward’s report, Gloria secretly encourages Elaine’s disrespectful behavior.

   Crisis, Elaine’s crisis, has forced Gloria and Edward into my office. Elaine got suspended from her parochial school. Edward is not too unhappy. He wanted her to go to public school any way. Gloria is quite upset as there are few other school choices which suit Gloria’s criteria. Nevertheless, both Gloria and Edward are worried that Elaine is having behavior problems at school. They want help for Elaine, but they are not willing to compromise with each other. Elaine is torn between pleasing her mother and alienating her father or the other way around. Elaine cannot see how to navigate her family life such that her parents are both happy and as such, she is acting up at school in an attempt to bring her parents together, or so it seems to me. By contrast, if Gloria and Edward could present a united front, be they married or divorced, then Elaine could identify with her mother, but still feel the love from her father: a successful oedipal resolution. Elaine’s inability to come to such a resolution creates such inner torment that following the rules at school seem nearly impossible to her. Without Freud’s understanding of this oedipal triangle, it would be more difficult to articulate why Elaine is having behavior problems. Freud did not help us treat kids like Elaine, but he sure helped us understand them.

6 Responses to “The Oedipal Triangle: Freud Lives”

  1. Shelly said

    Doesn’t Freud say that Elaine should love her father and hate her mother and not present as you describe here? Why does acting out in school necessarily connect to the home environment? Maybe Elaine has a social problem or an issue with a teacher which is unrelated to the parents’ relationship.

    • Shirah said

      Freud says that the parents have to be united in their outlook on life so that the female child (in this case) can identify with the mother and separate from the love of her father. If the parents are at odds with one another, this makes it nearly impossible for the child to negotiate this triangle. Acting out in school could be many things, but my hunch is that the parental discord is a large part of Elaine’s issue. Of course, there could be a lot of other factors at play as well. Thanks.

  2. While Elaine is clearly the “identified” patient here, she is, unfortunately caught up in the hostilities between mother and father and probably feels both love and hate, among other feelings, for them both. Her acting out is, to me, evidence of the layers of conflict she is feeling from this disturbed triad. When parents can’t “get it together” children suffer the consequences.

  3. Danny said

    Hi Dr Vollmer,
    This is is sorta indirectly related to this post…is there some cases where analysis would not be recommended to someone based on their intelligence/ intellectual capacity , or maybe the intensity of their current problems…. and instead suggest therapy at least for the time being. is there clear cut distinction as far as doing one type of therapy versus another ..enjoy reading your blog!Thanks.

    • Shirah said

      Hi Danny,
      Yes!!! Analysis does not make sense for all people who come to therapy. The distinction between psychotherapy and psychoanalysis is not clear, but in the end zones, it is clear who is a good candidate for psychoanalysis and who is not. The middle, of course, is a large grey area. Thanks for the nice comments. Shirah

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