Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Is There Anything to be Learned from Freud's Oedipal Complex?

Ever wonder if what happened between Oedpius and his mother could happen in real life? Well, apparently it can. And there is a name for it: genetic sexual attraction.

Genetic sexual attraction occurs when genetic relatives meet for the first time in adulthood and an attraction develops. Although it is a rare occurrence, there has been an increase in the number of reported cases in recent years, typically as a consequence of adoption (according to Wikipedia).

I'm no fan of Freud, but it kind of makes me think.

It should definitely be noted though, that for the vast majority of people, it is thought that living in close domestic proximity as children become desensitized to later attraction. This hypothesized phenomenon is known as the Westermark effect. It only pertains to children being raised together, and does not take into consideration whether or not they are genetically related.

I'm not so much wondering about whether or not there is unconscious attraction between members of domestically-cohesive family units in the way Freud talked about it, but how the concepts of both genetic sexual attraction and the Westermarck effect can relate to normative relationships.

Sure, there have been documented accounts of attraction in types of incestuous relationships, but this certainly isn't the norm. Nor do I think this is due to under-reporting! And no, I'm not so sure that a lack of awareness of unconscious motivations is the reason either.

I think it might go something like this:

The Westermarck effect occurs for most people, but there might be a genetic reason why it doesn't kick in for some. I'm guessing this might be the case for the people in a documentary I watched - two genetic siblings who were raised together, eventually developed a relationship and started a family. [What was your physiological reaction to that little story? That's your Westermarck effect in action.]

So while there are probably genetic components coming into play when we see a lack of Westermarck effect, I'm guessing there might be some environmental components at work as well. I'll spare you the details of my thoughts about this, though! Suffices to say that there is usually a mix of genetics and environment resulting in any behavior - normative or not. [Basically, I'm guessing certain conditions can prompt this behavior. I also think that a lack of development of the Westermarck effect could be observed in people who are attracted to people in roles similar to that of a parent (e.g. the classic example of women without a father figure dating a much older man).]

Ok, so while the Westermarck effect (and any generalization about attraction to people in parental roles) may be the norm, what about the genetic sexual attraction sometimes seen in some people who are adopted?

Well, despite the popular cliche` that opposites attract, I'm not so sure. I've certainly come across research saying that people tend to pair off who are similar across many different areas. As you've probably experienced, bonding can occur when you have similar thoughts to someone else. Sure it would be boring if you were exactly the same, but I'm guessing you're probably more similar to the people you're close with than different.

Basically, if you're genetically similar to someone that you meet in adulthood, you could actually be very similar to them, being that genetics play such an important role in personality formation. An account from an adopted woman about her eventual relationship with her genetic father, described a close bond forming because she was more similar to him than anyone she had ever met.

In short, I don't think that we all have suppressed genetic sexual attraction - probably due to the Westermarck effect developing (and most of the time generalizing to people in similar roles). I'd imagine that people are simply attracted to people who directly or indirectly validate them because of similar attitudes.

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As a side note: the problem of marriages or relationships going stale because more of a sibling relationship can develop, may be an interesting generalization of the Westermarck effect. I wonder if some have a stronger inclination for this effect (perhaps couples with a lack of sex drive). It may also have something to do with early development. Different types of effects could theoretically occur (e.g. quick forming attraction and then the Westermarck effect kicking in). Who knows? Something to think about.
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