Overview of the Electra Complex in Psychology

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The Electra complex is a psychoanalytic term used to describe a girl's sense of competition with her mother for the affections of her father. It is comparable to the male Oedipus complex.

According to Freud, during female psychosexual development, a young girl is initially attached to her mother. When she discovers that she does not have a penis, she becomes attached to her father and begins to resent her mother who she blames for her "castration."

As a result, Freud believed that the girl then begins to identify with and emulate her mother out of fear of losing her love. Resolving the Electra complex ultimately leads to identification with the same-sex parent.

The History

While the term Electra complex is frequently associated with Sigmund Freud, it was actually Carl Jung who coined the term in 1913. The term itself is derived from the Greek myth of Electra and her brother Orestes, who plotted the death of their mother for revenge of their father's murder.

Freud developed the underlying ideas of the Electra complex, although he did not term it as such. Freud rejected the term and described it as an attempt "to emphasize the analogy between the attitude of the two sexes."

Freud referred to a daughter's tendency to compete with her mother for possession of her father as the feminine Oedipus attitude or the negative Oedipus complex. It was Jung who went on to dub Freud's feminine Oedipus attitude as the Electra complex.

Freud and Jung were originally close friends and colleagues, but Jung increasingly grew dissatisfied with certain aspects of Freud's theories. He felt that Freud emphasized the role sexuality played in motivating human behavior. Eventually, Jung resigned from his psychoanalytic affiliations and acrimony grew between the two men.

How Does the Electra Complex Work?

According to Freudian theory, an important part of the developmental process is learning to identify with the same-sex parent. During the stages of Freud's theory of psychosexual development, the libidinal energy is focused on different erogenous zones of the child's body.

If something goes wrong during any of these stages, a fixation at that point in development might occur. A fixation is a persistent focus on an earlier psychosexual stage. Such fixations, Freud believed, often led to anxiety and played a role in neurosis and maladaptive behaviors in adulthood.

Freud described the feminine Oedipus attitude complex as a daughter's longing for her father and competition with her mother. The daughter possesses an unconscious desire to replace her mother as her father's sexual partner, thus leading to a rivalry between daughter and mother.

The Electra complex is thought to take place during the phallic stage, ages 3 to 6, of psychosexual development, during which time daughters spend more time with their fathers, flirting and practicing sexual behaviors without sexual contact.

A number of defense mechanisms play a role in resolving the Electra complex. It is the primal id (a component of personality present from birth) that demands the child to possess her father and compete with her mother. To resolve the conflict, these urges and desires must first be repressed from conscious memory.

Freud also suggested that when a young girl discovers she does not have a penis, she develops "penis envy" and begins to resent her mother for "sending her into the world so insufficiently equipped."

Eventually, this resentment leads the daughter to identify with her mother and incorporate many of the same personality characteristics into her ego. This process also allows the daughter to internalize her mother's morality into her super-ego, which ultimately directs her to follow the rules of her parents and society.

Freud believed that it was this process that also leads children to accept their gender roles, develop an understanding of their own sexuality, and even form a sense of morality.

Although Freud admitted that he knew less about the sexual life of little girls than little boys.

A Word From Verywell

The Electra Complex is not widely accepted among mental health professionals, who often view Freud's ideas about psychosexual development as outdated and sexists since they rely on century-old gender roles. That said, research does show that children learn about gender roles and sexuality from their parents, so it's always wise to set a good example.

If you're concerned about your child’s sexualized behavior, a mental health professional can conduct an assessment and make treatment recommendations to address sexual behavior problems.

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Article Sources

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  • Freud, S. "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." 1962; (n.p.): Basic Books.

  • Jung, C. G. "The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Psychoanalytic Review." 1913; 1, 1-40.

  • Khan M, et al. Girls’ First Love; Their Fathers: Freudian Theory Electra Complex. Research Gate, 2015. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319164982_Girls'_First_Love_Their_Fathers_Freudian_Theory_Electra_complex.

  • Scott, J. "Electra After Freud: Myth and Culture. Cornell Studies in the History of Psychiatry." 2005. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.