The Laius complex

Freud identified assorted psychological issues sons have in relating to their fathers (and, by extension, others – typically those in authority) and aptly named them after Œdipus, the central character of a Greek tragedy, in which he famously kills his father and marries his mother. Yet Œdipus is in fact an innocent caught in a tragedy created by, as it happens, his father, Laius; who tried (unsuccessfully) to have his son killed as a baby and later was so arrogant to a man on the road (who happened to be his son, not that either of them knew this) as to start a fight – and lose it, fatally. In each case, Laius was acting in response to oracles that foretold that his son would kill him and marry his wife. (There is a good deal more to Laius's story; but, for present purposes, I'll gloss over that as the story-teller's set-up of a context in which the above tale could unfold and Laius's fate could be seen as deserved.)

Just as Œdipus' tale gave Freud a model for sons, let us then look to Laius as a father. His insecurity about being usurped – both generally and in the affections of his wife – prompted cruelty towards his son as a baby and such arrogance, towards the young man that his son became, as to cause a fight between the two. When a child is young, it is indeed usual for the mother to be so attentive to the baby that the father gets less of her attention than he is used to, which may lead to him feeling neglected; and both parents are apt to get less sleep than they are used to, which can lead to conflict between them, which he is again apt to blame (albeit probably not consciously) on the baby. The resulting resentments may simmer for years and be expressed in harsh treatment of the child later: but little girls seem to be more apt to win their fathers round, while little boys have a well-earned propensity for trouble, so are more apt to cause (perfectly proper) conflicts with their fathers, which can open up an out-let for any lingering resentment to be expressed either in overly harsh responses or in further (less reasonable) conflicts (and often both). The resulting unkindness breeds, in turn, resentments which are sure to feed the Œdipal complications to which sons are prone. Thus is, all too often, planted the seed of the conflicts that are all too common between fathers and sons.

The upside of the story is that, of course, being aware of the propensity to such error can help fathers to avoid it. Just as parents need to watch for the possibility of sons developing Œdipal tendencies, so too they need to keep an eye on their own relationship and take care that the stresses that go with raising children do not lead them into problems of their own.

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