Family Romance

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The family romance is a conscious fantasy, later repressed, in which a child imagines that their birth parents are not actual but adoptive parents, or that their birth was the outcome of maternal infidelity. Typically, the fantasy parents are of noble lineage, or at least of a higher social class than the real parents.

The family romance (Freud, 1909c[1908]) differs from children's sexual theories in that it does not address general questions about the origins of life but rather the question, "Who am I?"where "I" denotes not an agency of the mind (or ego) but the result of an effort to place oneself in a history, and hence the attempt to form the basis of a knowledge.

The family romance fantasy has several possible aims and sources: revenge against frustrating parents; rivalry with the parent of the same sex; separation from idealized parents by means of their transformation into fantasy parents; and the elimination of brothers and sisters for competitive or incestuous purposes.

The family romance is built on the basis of the child's intuitive knowledge of their parents' emotions, although the parents may believe these perfectly concealed (see Freud, Totem and Taboo [1912-1913a]; also, apropos of the paranoid's intuitiveness, "Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality" [1922b [1921]).

Other intellectual capacities are necessary for the creation of a family romance, notably the ability to compare and to relativize. The fantasy may thus be considered the result of a basic psychological attainment, that of the right to doubthere, to doubt the absolute aspect of parental figures ("Pater semper incertus est "). The family romance is, in fact, linked to the unconscious of the parents. For the father, there can be only one true father, his own, that of the "primal horde"; while the mother associates her child psychologically, particularly her first-born, with her own oedipal attachments (Mijolla). This first childhood romance is often maintained in daydreams well beyond puberty. Its influence is also discernible in the pleasure novel-readers derive by identifying with different fictional characters.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Cultural transmission; Family; Fantasy; Heroic self, the; Imposter; Latency period; Myth of the Birth of the Hero ; Myth of the hero; Mythology and psychoanalysis; Substitute/substitutive formation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1909c [1908]). Family romances. SE, 9: 235-241.

. (1912-13a]). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1922b [1921]). Neurotic mechanisms in jealousy, paranoia and homosexuality, SE, 18: 221-232.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1987). Unconscious identification, fantasies and family prehistory. International Journal of Psychoanalysis , 68, 397-403.

Further Reading

Corbett, Ken. (2001). Nontraditional family romance. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 70, 599-624.

Greenacre, Phyllis. (1958). The family romance of the artist. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 13, 9-36.