What Is the Father Complex?

A "father complex" refers to a collection of ideas surrounding the archetype of the father. These associations develop unconsciously through interactions with a father or father figure and exposure to different models of parenting. Some may be positive in nature, while others may be negative; someone who grows up in an abusive household, for example, may have a father archetype that is violent and angry, and may develop a fear or mistrust of father figures. In many schools of psychotherapy, patients may be encouraged to explore the complexes that influence their interactions with the world so they can come to a deeper understanding of themselves.

Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud, two psychologists who worked in the early 20th century, famously contributed substantial scholarship to the concept of complexes. Their followers built on these ideas, integrating them into many different branches of psychology and psychoanalysis. Freud famously posited that men experienced a type of father complex known as the Oedipus Complex, named for the Greek play Oedipus Rex. His theory suggested that men experienced jealousy of their fathers, wanting to kill them and sleep with their mothers. He felt that boys experienced this as a natural part of their development, and resolved it by identifying with their fathers as they matured.

The father complex can influence the way people think about fathers and father figures, although they are not consciously aware of it. A person who views the father as a supportive, protective mentor, for example, may seek out father figures and feel comfortable with men who are similar to this archetype. Someone with negative associations might be uncomfortable around men who are reminders of the father; thus, an employee might have a conflicted relationship with a supervisor because of an underlying father complex, for instance.

Other complexes can surround the perception of mothers, siblings, and other important figures in someone’s life. In psychotherapy, people may discuss the associations they have built up around these archetypes. This can be an important step in therapy to break down an archetype or repair conflicted relationships with people. The father complex, for example, could interfere with a marital relationship or might become a problem when someone is preparing to become a parent.

Not all schools of psychology embrace the complex model, and those that do may have differing approaches to it. Freud and Jung themselves debated the role and nature of complexes; they were more central to Freud’s work, for example, while Jung discussed them more tangentially. These variations in psychological theory illustrate the divergence of this branch of scholarship over time.

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