What is the Electra Complex & How Does it Work?

What is the Electra Complex?

Described as the female version of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, the Electra complex revolves around a girl, aged between 3 to 6 years, who becomes subconsciously sexually attached to her father, and hostile towards the mother. The theory was developed by Carl Jung in 1913.

The foundation of this theory was presented by Sigmund Freud, whose Oedipus complex theory built on the theory that a young girl subconsciously starts to compete with her mother for getting the sexual attention of her father. However, Freud’s contemporary, Carl Jung, named this situation the ‘Electra Complex” in 1913.

The Electra complex, similar to the Oedipus complex, is also named after a Greek myth, where Electra was the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra of Mycenae. When Queen Clytemnestra, together with her lover, kills Agamemnon, Electra, their daughter, persuades her brother to help her kill both her mother and her mother’s lover.(1)

As per the theory, all people go through various stages of psychosexual development during their childhood. One of the most important stages in this development is known as the ‘phallic stage’, which happens between the ages of 3 to 6 years. As per Freud, this is the age during which both boys and girls become obsessed with the penis. While girls obsess on their lack of a penis and therefore, on their clitoris, boys are fixated on the penis.

When it comes to the psychosexual development of girls, Freud theorized that girls remain attached to their mother until she comes to realize that she does not have a penis. This causes the girl to develop a resentment towards her mother as she starts to believe the mother has ‘castrated’ her. This situation is referred to as ‘penis envy’.(2)

Due to this, the girl develops a greater attachment to her father. As time moves on, the girls start to identify more strongly with the mother and also starts to emulate the mother’s behavior in fear that she will lose her mother’s love. This is referred to as ‘feminine Oedipus attitude’.

This is perceived to be an important stage in the development of a young girl, according to Freud, as it is supposed to lead her to understand her own sexuality and also accept gender roles. Freud further proposed that this feminine Oedipus attitude is more emotionally intense than the Oedipus complex in boys, and this is why it was repressed more harshly by girls, ultimately leading to women becoming less self-confident and more subservient.

This theory was further expanded by Carl Jung, who labeled it as the ‘Electra Complex’. However, Freud rejected Jung’s label, claiming that it was an attempt to analogize his Oedipus complex happening between the genders.

How Does The Electra Complex Work?

At the starting, a girl remains attached to her mother, and then, over a period of time, she comes to the realization that she does not have a penis and starts to experience penis envy, blaming her mother for this ‘castration’.

Due to the fact that she wants to sexually possess a parent and she cannot do so with her mother without having a penis, her attention turns towards her father instead. At this developmental stage, she starts to develop a subconscious sexual desire for her father. At the same time, she turns hostile towards the mother, becoming more and more fixated on her father. She might also push away her mother and start to focus completely on her father instead.

Over a period of time, as she grows up, she starts to realize that her mother’s love is also equally important, so she starts becoming attached to her mother once again, and starts emulating her mother’s action and learning about traditional gender roles. During puberty again, she starts becoming attracted to men who are not related to her.

Some adults, according to Jung, can regress to the phallic phase, while some never really grow out of the phallic phase, leaving them with sexual feelings towards their parent.

Is There Any Truth Behind The Electra Complex?

With progress in psychology, nowadays the Electra complex is no longer widely accepted or believed to be true. As with many of the theories put forth by Freud, the feminine Oedipus attitude complex along with the theory of ‘penis envy’ is today widely criticized and frowned upon. There is, in fact, very little data available that supports the theory of the Electra complex. There is also no official diagnosis even for the Electra complex present in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)(3).

Overall as well, the very concept of ‘penis envy’ has been highly criticized as being extremely sexist and both the Electra and the Oedipus complexes are also criticized as being heteronormative because it implies that a child needs two parents (a mother and a father) to develop properly.(4)

While it is possible for young girls to become sexually attracted to their fathers, it is not a universal theory as proposed by both Freud and Jung.

Conclusion

The Electra complex has been discredited in recent years and most psychologists do not even believe this to be real. It has today simply been rendered to a theory that is frowned upon today. If you have any concerns about your child’s sexual or mental development, consulting a child psychologist would be the best way to go about. They will be the correct person to guide you in a manner that will help your concerns.

References:  

  1. Zepf, S. and Seel, D., 2016. Penis Envy and the Female Oedipus Complex: A Plea to Reawaken an Ineffectual Debate. The Psychoanalytic Review, 103(3), pp.397-421.
  2. Zepf, S. and Seel, D., 2016. Penis Envy and the Female Oedipus Complex: A Plea to Reawaken an Ineffectual Debate. The Psychoanalytic Review, 103(3), pp.397-421.
  3. Psychiatry.org. (2019). DSM-5. [online] Available at: https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm [Accessed 1 May 2019].
  4. Drwiega, M., 2002. On controversies around the Oedipus Complex. Psychiatria polska, 36(6), pp.895-909

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