The Electra complex is a term used to describe the female version of the Oedipus complex.
It involves a girl, aged between 3 and 6, becoming subconsciously sexually attached to her father and increasingly hostile toward her mother. Carl Jung developed the theory in 1913.
Sigmund Freud, who developed the Oedipus complex theory, first developed the idea that a young girl child competes with her mother for the sexual attention of her father.
However, it was Carl Jung — Freud’s contemporary — who first called this situation the “Electra complex” in 1913.
Just as the Oedipus complex was named after a Greek myth, so is the Electra complex.
According to Greek mythology, Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. When Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, killed Agamemnon, Electra persuaded her brother Orestes to help her kill both her mother and her mother’s lover.
According to Freud, all people go through numerous stages of psychosexual development as children. The most important stage is the “phallic stage” between the ages of 3 and 6.
According to Freud, this is when both boys and girls become fixated on the penis. Freud argued that girls fixate on their lack of a penis and, in its absence, their clitoris.
In a girl’s psychosexual development, Freud proposed, she’s first attached to her mother until she realizes she doesn’t have a penis. This causes her to resent her mother for “castrating” her — a situation Freud referred to as “penis envy.” Because of this, she develops an attachment to her father.
Later, the girl identifies more strongly with her mother and emulates her behavior out of fear of losing her mother’s love. Freud called this a “feminine Oedipus attitude.”
Freud believed this was a crucial stage in a young girl’s development, as it leads her to accept gender roles and understand her own sexuality.
Freud proposed that the feminine Oedipus attitude was more emotionally intense than the Oedipus complex, so it was repressed more harshly by the young girl. This, he believed, led to women being less self-confident and more subservient.
Carl Jung expanded on this theory by labeling it the “Electra complex.” However, this label was rejected by Freud, who said it was an attempt to analogize the Oedipus complex between the sexes.
Since Freud believed there were crucial differences between the Oedipus complex and the feminine Oedipus attitude, he didn’t believe they should be conflated.
Initially, the girl is attached to her mother.
Then, she realizes she doesn’t have a penis. She experiences “penis envy” and blames her mother for her “castration.”
Because she wants to sexually possess a parent and she can’t possess her mother without a penis, she tries to possess her father instead. At this stage, she develops subconscious sexual feelings toward her father.
She becomes hostile toward her mother and fixated on her father. She might push her mother away or focus all her attention on her father.
Eventually, she realizes she doesn’t want to lose her mother’s love, so she becomes attached to her mother again, emulating her mother’s actions. By emulating her mother, she learns to follow traditional gender roles.
In puberty, she’ll then start becoming attracted to men who aren’t related to her, according to Freud.
Some adults, Jung noted, could regress to the phallic stage or never grow out of the phallic stage, leaving them sexually attached to their parent.
The Electra complex isn’t widely accepted in psychology nowadays. As with many of Freud’s theories, the feminine Oedipus attitude complex and the notion of “penis envy” is also widely criticized.
Very little data actually supports the idea that the Electra complex is real. It’s not an official diagnosis in the the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
As a 2015 paper points out, Freud’s ideas about psychosexual development have been criticized as outdated because they rely on century-old gender roles.
The concept of “penis envy” has, in particular, been criticized as sexist. The Oedipus and Electra complexes also imply that a child needs two parents — a mother and a father — to develop properly, which has been criticized as heteronormative.
That said, it’s possible for young girls to experience sexual attraction toward their fathers. It’s just not as universal as Freud and Jung believed it to be, according to many in the field.
The Electra complex is no longer a widely accepted theory. Most psychologists don’t believe it’s real. It’s more a theory that’s become the subject of jokes.
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental or sexual development, reach out to a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or child psychologist. They can help guide you in a way that may settle your concerns.