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Overview of the Electra Complex in Psychology

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 24, 2022


Key Takeaways
  • The Electra Complex, first proposed by Carl Jung, is the female equivalent of the Oedipus complex.
  • Like the Oedipal complex, the Electra complex arises between the oral and phallic stages of Freud's psychosexual development — between ages three and six. During this stage, a female child supposedly pushes away from her mother and becomes jealous of and displays possessive affection toward her father.
  • According to Freud, this shift from identification with one's mother to resentment and withdrawal is motivated by penis envy, which happens when a young girl realizes that she has no penis.
  • In Freud's view, the Electra Complex, if left unresolved, results in neurosis and mental illness.
  • The Electra Complex has been lambasted by modern psychology and is widely considered to be an antiquated concept, not least because there is little evidence in support of the concept. Critics have ranged from questions of methodology in Freud's original case studies to the belief that penis envy and the Electra Complex were created as cover-ups for sexual trauma.
  • Nonetheless, the Electra Complex still holds a place in the modern consciousness, and has been mentioned in everything from psychoanalytic case studies of drug use to psychoanalytic literary theory.

History and Overview

The Electra Complex, the female equivalent of the Oedipus Complex, is a term in neo-Freudian psychology that refers to a daughter developing love for her father, and jealousy and blame toward her mother for depriving her of a penis.

Although many textbooks state that the Electra complex is a Freudian term, Freud used the term Oedipus Complex in reference to both boys and girls.

The Electra Complex derives from Greek Myth. Electra, the daughter of the king Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, sought to avenge her father's murder by persuading her brother Orestes to help her kill her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. 

Carl Jung introduced the term in an article in 1913, although Sigmund Freud stated in 1920 that he did not consider the term to be useful.

In an article on Female sexuality in 1931, Freud went further in denying that the Electra complex exists at all, stating that "It is only in the male child that we find the fateful combination of love for one parent and hatred for the other as a rival."

How Does the Electra Complex Work?

Carl Jung proposed that the Electra complex involves three different phases: attraction to one's mother, attraction to one's father; and, finally, resolution.

Jung believed that the emotional bond between a girl and her mother is more intense than that between a boy and his mother during infancy and toddlerhood. However, upon learning that she has no penis, she feels a desire to obtain what her father's sexual organ symbolizes.

At this stage, a girl may become jealous and display behaviors like possessive affection toward her father. Alternatively, she may display hostility if she does not get what she wants from the father figure. 

In Freudian theory, an important part of the developmental process is learning to identify with one's same-sex parent. 

Attraction to one's father

Freudian theory conceptualized that, between three and six to seven years of age, a child begins to want to possess and become closer to the parent of the opposite sex. A boy may push away his father and kiss and hug his mother. Similarly, a young girl may insist on going into the bathroom with her father. 

Eventually, according to Freud, the Electra complex dissolves. In doing so, a number of defense mechanisms play a role. In the theory of psychosexual development, the primal id — the instinctive component of personality that is present at birth – compels a child to possess her father and compete with her mother. In order to resolve this conflict, the child must repress their urges and desires in conscious memory (Honig, 2000). 

Resolution

Freud also suggested that, when a young girl discovers that she does not have a penis, she develops penis envy, and begins to resent her mother for her lack of male anatomy.

Eventually, however, this resentment leads the daughter to identify with her mother and incorporate many of her mother's personality characteristics into her ego — the part of the mind responsible for sorting out what is real.

Eventually, this process allows the daughter to incorporate her mother's morality into her superego, the part of the mind that Freud believed was responsible for controlling the id's impulses (Honig, 2000). 

The domination of the superego allows the child, in Freud's view, to accept their gender roles, develop an understanding of their sexuality, and form a sense of morality.

Lack of resolution

In Freud's view, it was also possible for a child not to find resolution to the Electra complex. In this case, Freud believes that the girl will continue to seek father figures in their future relationships, or to a constant search of approval from a father figure (Khan & Haider, 2015).

Unsuccessful resolution of the Electra Complex can also lead to what Freud calls neurosis, which is a class of chronic mental disorders involving chronic distress.

Men and women who are fixated in the Electra and Oedipal stages of their psychosexual development were considered by Freud to be father-fixated or mother-fixated. 

Controversy and Criticism

The Electra Complex has little supporting evidence, and both the Electra and Oedipus complexes are seen as antiquated by modern psychologists. 

Because the Electra Complex is often seen as simply an extension of the Oedipus complex to women, their criticisms overlap greatly.

The development of the Oedipus complex was based on Freud's analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy (Freud, 1909). Here, Freud recounts a young boy whose freedom to move in the world — to take walks and play in the street — becomes tangled in the complexities of love and desire (1909).

The case of little Hans — the boy that Freud's account centers around — has been criticized both for its validity and for its role in being the only major piece of evidence that Freud presented as justification for the Oedipus complex.

The paper has been criticized both for the fact that Han's father (himself a pro-Freudian psychoanalyst) did most of the psychoanalysis on Hans.

Additionally, other researchers, such as Bowlby (1973) have put forth alternate interpretations of Han's fear of horses, such as attachment theory.

Karen Horney's dismissal of penis envy and the Electra Complex

One of the earliest critics of Freud's electra complex was Karen Horney. Horney believed that the concept of Penis Envy underlying the Electra complex was both inaccurate and demeaning to women.

Instead, Horney argued that female psychiatric disturbances had its origins in the male-dominated culture that had produced Freudian theory.

Horney countered Freud's penis envy by introducing the concept of womb envy, which suggest that males develop envy toward their mothers and other women for their inability to produce life (Vanacore, 2020). 

Horney was largely dismissed by her early-20th century contemporaries, who were largely male psychoanalysts. Indeed, Freud himself criticized Horney — and the work of female psychoanalysts in general — stating that the women who rejected the idea of penis envy were in a state of denial.

Eventually, Horney's anti-Freudian theories of personality and neurosis led to her expulsion from the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute (Vanacore, 2020). 

Criticism by Sigmund Freud

The Electra Complex is not originally a Freudian concept. Freud's stages of psychosexual development were largely based on his interactions with his male patients. Freud does not make it clear in his writings whether the Oedipus complex extended to women.

Indeed, in one work, Freud states that, "it is only in the male child that we find the fateful combination of love for the one parent and simultaneous hatred for the other as a rival" (Scott, 2018).

Examples

In the 1960s psychological LSD experiments

Despite its wide discrediting by the psychological community for its lack of evidence, some neo-Freudians still use the Oedipus and Electra Complexes as a way of describing the experiences of their patients. 

One example of such a case is Athanassio Kafkalides’ 1967 paper on the experiences of patients during LSD-psychotherapy sessions. In the 1960s, researchers began using LSD as a psychiatric drug in patients with a number of disorders, before its use was subsequently criminalized.

Kafkalide believed that his patient's fixations could be traced back to the mother and their desire to return to the womb. He believed that, for both patients, sexuality was a way of coming as close as possible to the realization of this desire (Kafkalide, 1996).

Florance Rush: The Electra Complex as a cover-up for the aftereffects of sexual-abuse

The feminist author Florence Rush criticized the development of the Oedipus Complex — and Jung's counterpart, the Electra Complex, saying that these were cover-ups for reports of sexual abuse and incest by his patients' paternal figures (Rush, 1996).

Rush believed that, at first, Freud drew a causal connection between sexual abuse and the neurosis of his female patients, who often reported sexual abuse (Rush, 1996). 

However, because his male patients did not complain of maternal seduction, Florence Rush argued, Freud considered this "imagined" abuse to be a female-specific problem — the Oedipus complex in women.

Rush believed that Freud became uncomfortable with the implication of his theory that sexual abuse caused neurosis: that sexual abuse was extremely wide-spread in women.

As a result, Rush says, Freud formulated the Oedipus Complex as a way of painting his patient's stories as imaginary, saying that women's accounts of sexual assault by their parents came from unresolved Oedipal complexes; and, subsequently, fantasies of having sex with their fathers. Rush calls this the Freudian Coverup (1996).

The Electra Complex in Literary Analysis

The Electra and Oedipal complexes have also become a fixation of psychoanalytic literary theorists, who seek to find examples of them in their own works. However, these analyses often are not joined to the same Freudian ideas of repression and subsequent neurosis that existed in his original psychosexual development theories.

One psychoanalytic literary theorist, Muhammad Shoaib (2014), used Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night to argue that the characters Viola and Olivia are driven by their unconscious desire to possess their brothers who served as father figures for them.

In doing this, Shoaib argues that they are  representations of the phallic and post-Oedipal stages in Freud's psychosexual development.

Shoaib believed that these two girls were possessed of an acute dire to replace and imitate their mothers by first idealizing the father-figures, and then by replacing the wish for their own fathers with one to emulate their mothers by possessing an ideal father and having a child.

Some authors in the post-Freud era have written knowingly in reference to the Electra Complex. Perhaps the most notable of these is Sylvia Plath, who described her poem, "Daddy," as being about one girl's confrontation with an unresolved Electra complex manifested in the wake of her father's untimely death (Plath, 2014).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 24). Overview of the Electra Complex in Psychology. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/electra-complex.html

References

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Rush, F. (1996). The Freudian coverup. Feminism & Psychology, 6(2), 260-276.

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How to reference this article:

Prera, A (2021, May 26). Cultivation theory. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/cultivation-theory.html

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