BEYOND OEDIPUS: Birth order and family dynamics

"Since up to now none of the initiated have wanted to admit this bad luck of their teacher -
not mine, as was often erroneously contended - I am myself obliged to destroy a legend."
- Alfred Adler describing his break with Freud in 1912.

Crucially for the present study, Freud did not pay enough attention to other family relationships when devising the Oedipus theory. Freud only looked at sibling relations in early childhood briefly (for example in The Interpretation of Dreams), and almost exclusively from the point of view of the elder child, as he himself was. Freud's overall view of sibling interaction portrays siblings of opposite sexes as doubles of the parents themselves (a son can desire his sister in place of his mother), whilst same-sex siblings are even more marginalised into mere interchangeable rivals vying for their parents' love. Therefore, for Freud sibling relationships have no independent existence outside of the Oedipal conflict. This is a significant absence when we consider how important a role siblings play in our early development (in establishing sexual difference, for example), and has been commented upon by many analysts. Freud's interest in myth should have led him to a more detailed investigation of sibling relationships as the fratricide motif recurs as often in mythic literature as the parricide one (including, of course, the sons of Oedipus), whilst the primal murder in the Bible is not parricide but fratricide (1). Fratricide certainly makes more biological sense: as Frank Sulloway has noted, death wishes against parents are contrary to evolution as all young creatures need the attention of both parents to give them the maximum chance of surviving infancy, whereas siblicide may have beneficial results for the youngsters who remain since they thus retain a larger percentage of parental resources (2).

Paradoxically, as Akter Ahsen has observed, the desire for sexual contact is likely to be greater between siblings than between other relative groups (3). Sibling love can be (and frequently is) as intense as parental or any other love (4). This perhaps explains the brother-sister taboos of certain peoples, which are a lot more frequent than parent-child taboos. Incest with siblings also occurs fairly frequently in mythic literature, especially between the Greek gods and goddesses, as we saw earlier in this chapter. This was also the case with Freud's analysands - most of them had incestuous attachments to siblings. The patient known as the "Wolf Man", due to his pathological fear of wolves, was seduced by his five year old sister at the age of three, whilst an unnamed homosexual female patient chose (female) love objects who reminded her of an elder brother (5). So why did Freud neglect this phenomenon? As we shall see, Freud himself experienced strong feelings of rivalry and ambivalent love for his own siblings and sibling substitutes, so (as with his Oedipal feelings for his mother), this may be precisely the reason why he did not discuss it.

Alfred Adler

This "gap" in Freud's theory led Alfred Adler, one of his "bad sons", to examine the phenomena of what he was the first to call "sibling rivalry". Like Freud, Adler (1870-1937 - left) was the son of a Jewish merchant of the lower middle class and was raised in Vienna. Unlike the sturdy young Sigi, however, Adler was a sickly child who suffered from rickets and nearly died following a bout of pneumonia. Adler's family constellation perhaps helps explain some of his divergences from Freud: as a second son whose main childhood rival had been his elder brother (another Sigmund), Adler felt the Oedipus complex to be unduly concerned with parent-(eldest) child relations. In large families (as Freud's sisters may have discovered), a later child is much less likely to develop a strong attachment to its mother as it is soon banished from her side in preparation for the next little sibling, who will in turn suffer the same fate. Adler's experience was in fact directly the opposite of Freud's (and Lacan's) since he had felt rejected by his mother, who like Amalie Freud favoured her first born, and protected by his father. Adler therefore concluded that the "so-called Oedipus complex", as he termed it, could occur only in pampered children who wished to control the mother and command her unrivalled affection: this usually being in any case an aggressive rather than a sexual desire. Young Sigi, as Adler duly noted, was of course a prime example of such a child (6).

Drawing on his own early experiences, Adler argued that the child's place in the family (birth order) was a key determinant in the formation of his personality, including, of course, his "inferiority complex". Girls were more likely than boys to feel inferior as they were considered to be less valuable in those days. Freud largely ignored the birth order theory and only made one brief mention of it in his writings (7). Adler divided siblings into four key subject positionings: eldest child, second or middle child, youngest child and only child. Unfortunately, as Frank Sulloway points out (8), Adler's attempt to categorise the distinctive traits of these sibling groups is fairly ambiguous: firstborns can be co-operative or unruly, laterborns zealous or lazy. Most importantly for the present study, however, he depicted these groups as being involved in a constant struggle for power, with the eldest child fighting to protect his superior position against usurping younger siblings (or, in the case of the only child, the mere possibility of them). More recent research has supported this idea (9).

Despite its faults (which have been discussed in the previous few sections (10)), I personally find the Oedipus complex useful for explaining a number of conundrums from our early childhood, and do not agree with those theorists who argue that it should be abandoned entirely. However, there is clearly a need for a complimentary theory to be devised to accommodate sibling relationships. This will be my aim in the next chapter.


1) See Rieff, Phillip ([1960], 1965) Freud, the Mind of the Moralist, Methuen, London.

2) See Sulloway, Frank J. (1996) Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives, Abacus, London.

3) See Ahsen, Akter (1984) Rhea Complex: A Detour Around Oedipus Complex, Brandon House, New York, p.51. Anthony Storr ([1960] 1966) noted in The Integrity of the Personality (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth) that whilst incestuous relations with parents are usually harmful for a child, sexual intercourse which take place between siblings is "not necessarily so"! (p.96). The crime of Oedipus, mother-son incest, is in fact the rarest form of incest in the world. See Mead, Margaret ([1962] 1974) Male and Female (revised edition), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

4) This is as true of same sex siblings as it is of cross-sex siblings, as the following examples (from the Sunday Times Relative Values series) testify: "I've never had a boyfriend who's meant as much to me as my sister Beverley. I wouldn't bother with any guy who didn't like her" - Paulette Randall, theatre director, of her elder sister (August 21 1988); "I would say that my relationship with my brother has been the most important in my's stronger than marriage" - Michel Roux, restauranteer, of his elder brother Albert (November 10 1985); "There have been other relationships, but they haven't been able to incorporate Dale. In every case I've ended up thinking quite simply that she's cleverer, more fun, and the man has had to go" - Lynne Spender, writer, of her elder sister (November 1 1987). Cricketer Adam Hollioake recently expressed a similar view in the Daily Mail with regard to his younger brother, also a cricketer: "When cricket's gone, Ben will still be the most important thing in my life." See Hollioake, Adam, quoted in The Daily Mail, January 22 1999.

5) The smaller age gap, of course, plays a large part in the relative attractiveness of siblings for one another. Given these circumstances, it is interesting to speculate whether Freud would have "discovered" the Oedipus complex if his mother had been forty and dowdy rather than twenty and beautiful when she gave birth to him.

6) See, for example, Adler, Alfred (ed. Colin Brett) ([1938] 1998) Social Interest, Oneworld, Oxford.

7) Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis (1915-17, Standard Edition XVI, p.334). Strangely, Freud asserted here that "the position of a child in the family order is a factor of extreme importance in determining the shape of his later life and should deserve consideration in every life history", then never referred to the subject again!

8) See Sulloway, Frank J. (1996).

9) See, for example, Leman, Kevin (1984) The Birth Order Book, Revell, New Jersey; Woolfson, Richard C. (1995) Sibling Rivalry, Thornsons, London.

10) Perhaps we could add a sixth revision: the post modern response, as exemplified by works such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's rabidly Marxist Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (([1972] 1983), Athlone Press, London). In proclaiming a malevolent schizoid identity in place of the "benevolent pseudo neutrality of the Oedipal analyst" (p.112), Deleuze and Guattari reject any attempt at mediation between psychoanalysis and their own radical doctrine. Another interesting view is that of George Devereux, who claims that psychoanalysis has failed to recognise the existence of a "Laius complex": the tendency of the Oedipal parents to ignore their own sexual feelings towards their offspring and instead to place all the responsibility for the complex onto the child. See Webster, Richard (1996) Why Freud Was Wrong (revised edition), HarperCollins Publishers, London, p.156. This should not be confused with J.M. Masson's more forthright assertions of actual parental abuse (see above).


Go to Contents Page

Go to Previous Page

Go to Chapter Two

ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

All rights reserved.