Preoedipal phase

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French: stade préœdipien

The preoedipal phase is the stage of psychosexual development prior to the formation of the Oedipus complex.

Sigmund Freud

The term emerges very late in Freud's work, in the context of his discussion of female sexuality.[1]

Jacques Lacan

Dual Relation

Before Lacan, the preoedipal phase was usually represented as a dual relation between mother and child existing prior to any third term which could mediate it. However, Lacan argues that such an approach has the disadvantage of rendering the concept unthinkable in psychoanalytic theory.

Triadic Structure

Psychoanalysis deals exclusively with structure, which requires a minimum of three terms, and thus a preoedipal phase which is represented as a purely dual relation "cannot be conceived of in analytic terms."[2] The child is never completely alone with the mother, since there is always a third term.[3] Hence when Lacan speaks of a preoedipal phase, he presents it not as a dual relation but as a triangle.[4]

Imaginary Phallus

The third element in the preoedipal triangle, which mediates the dual relation between the mother and the child, is the phallus, an imaginary object which circulates between them in a series of exchanges. In the seminar of 1957-8 Lacan speaks of this Imaginary triangle not as a preoedipal phase but as the first 'time' of the Oedipus complex. Whether described as preoedipal, or as a moment in the Oedipus complex itself, the imaginary triangle of mother, child and phallus arises when the infant perceives a lack in the mother. The infant realises that the mother is not completely satisfied with him alone, but desires something else (the phallus). The child then seeks to be the phallus for the mother, which involves him in a seductive game of lures in which the child "is never really there at the place where he is, and is never completely absent from the place where he is not."[5]

End of the Prepoedipal Phase

In the seminar of 1956-7, where Lacan analyzes the case of Little Hans,[6] he shows how, for a while, this game is satisfying for Hans, and argues that there is nothing inherent in it that would put an end to this preoedipal phase.[7] However, at some point something else intervenes which introduces a discordant note of anxiety into the game. This "something else" is the first stirring of the drive, which manifests itself in infantile masturbation.[8] The intervention of the real organ in this way transforms the imaginary triangle into a deadly game, an impossible task, in which the child is completely prey to the arbitrary desire of the omnipotent devouring mother.[9] The child is only saved from this deadly game by the intervention of the father as a fourth term, the father who rightfully claims possession of the phallus on the basis of a symbolic law.


The interest of the preoedipal phase for Lacan does not only lie in its function in paving the way for the Oedipus complex, but also in the fact that all the perversions have their origin in this phase.[10] Perversion always involves some kind of identification with another term in the preoedipal triangle, whether it be the mother, or the imaginary phallus (or both, as in fetishism).

See Also