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 affection of her father. It is comparable to the Oedipus complex in males.

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.

History of the Electra Complex

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

The Electra complex develops during the phallic stage of psychosexual development. The phallic stage occurs between the ages of three to six, during which time daughters spend more time with their fathers, flirting and practicing sexual behaviors without sexual contact.

Like many other Freudian ideas, the notion of the Electra complex was controversial, both in his own time and today. Freud did admit that he knew less about the development of girls than boys.

Resolving the Electra Complex

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 compels 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.

Modern Views on the Electra Complex

The Electra complex is not widely accepted among mental health professionals today, who often view Freud's ideas about psychosexual development as outdated and sexist since they rely on century-old gender roles. That said, research does show that children learn about gender roles and sexuality from their parents.

It is also important to note that Freud's concepts of the Electra complex and Oedipus complex rely on outdated, heteronormative gender roles. It also fails to account for the fact that having two opposite-sex parents does not contribute to better developmental outcomes. Children raised in more diverse family settings, including those from single-parent homes or raised by LGBTQ+ parents have positive experiences and outcomes as well.

A Word From Verywell

While the Electra complex has been debunked and is no longer accepted by most psychologists in mainstream psychology, it does offer an important look at the history of psychoanalytic thought. 

If you're concerned about your child’s sexualized behavior, a mental health professional can conduct an assessment. They can then make treatment recommendations to address any sexual behavior problems. Look for treatment options in your area for traditional face-to-face treatment or consider an online therapy program.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mazrekaj D, Fischer MM, Bos HMW. Behavioral outcomes of children with same-sex parents in The NetherlandsInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(10):5922. doi:10.3390/ijerph19105922

Additional Reading
  • Freud S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Basic Books; 1962.

  • Jung CG. The Theory of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Review. 1913;1:1-40.

  • Scott J. Electra After Freud: Myth and Culture. Cornell University Press; 2005.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."