This debunked theory aimed to explain a possessive form of attachment between a female child and her opposite-sex parent.
Love and affection between children and parents is natural. How you’re raised — and in particular, the amount of love and support you’re given — can impact how you develop into an adult.
But when a child’s feelings of love and attachment shift into a form of desire, it may signal a deeper mental health complex.
One unproven theory of psychosexual development created by Sigmund Freud describes this experience as becoming stuck in “phallic phase” of development, triggering an Oedipus complex.
The Electra complex is a complementary — though similarly unproven — theory developed by Carl Jung, a student of Freud, and centers on similar feelings female children might experience.
The Electra complex is a largely debunked theory that describes a female child experiencing specific feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex — her father — including:
According to its creator Carl Jung, a child experiencing the Electra complex may also have a competitive drive against the parent of the same sex.
The Electra complex theory is sometimes considered the female counterpart to the Oedipus complex theory, a component of Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory of development.
Electra complex isn’t a Freudian term, however. It’s an expansion of his theory created by Carl Jung, specifically used to define feelings in female children who are fixated on their fathers.
Though many children experience feelings that may match the Electra complex theory description, it’s not an accepted theory or condition in modern psychotherapy.
Who was Electra?
A legendary character of ancient Greek tragedy, Electra was the daughter of King Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.
When King Agamemnon was murdered, she helped save her younger brother Orestes by sending him away into hiding.
When he returned from exile, Electra persuaded her brother to help her murder their mother Clytemnestra and her new lover, who were responsible for the death of their father, King Agamemnon.
Unlike Oedipus, Electra didn’t marry her opposite-sex parent. Instead, she married Pylades, one of her brother’s friends.
When does Electra complex occur?
Freud’s original theory of psychosexual development consists of 6 phases. Each phase involves aspects of maturing pleasure sensations and a growing sense of self-identity.
These phases include:
- oral: infancy to 18 months
- anal: 18 months to 3 years
- phallic: 3 years to 5 years
- latency: 5 years to 12 years
- genital: 12 years, or the onset of puberty, to adulthood
Though empirically unproven, Freud believed that children experienced the majority of their development in sexual identity between ages 3 and 5 years old, or the phallic phase.
His theory suggests that this is also the phase where children may experience the Oedipus — or Electra — complex, which he saw as a natural part of development.
The Electra and Oedipus complexes are no longer widely accepted among modern psychotherapists and analysts.
Both of these early theories remain a fascinating perspective on childhood development and the history of psychoanalysis.
However, newer theories have emerged to explain attachment between children and parents without components of sexuality or an overbearing focus on gender.
Heteronormative gender roles
Additionally, the Electra and Oedipus complexes have been heavily criticized for their reliance on heteronormative gender roles.
Having one female and one male parent doesn’t necessarily equal better childhood development. Current research suggests children raised in LGBTQ families may experience primarily positive outcomes. They may also face similar family challenges as those of families with heterosexual parents.
In Freud’s original Oedipus complex theory, both male and female children with a parental fixation fell under the same classification.
Freud fundamentally believed that both girls and boys experienced psychosexual development in the same phases. Therefore, he felt the Oedipus complex aptly described this type of experience in both sexes.
Carl Jung is credited with expanding the Oedipus complex theory in 1913, splitting the complex between boys and girls. Jung suggested that his Electra complex was a way to clearly define a female child’s feelings of desire toward her father.
Originally, Jung intended for the Electra complex to be the female counterpart to the Oedipus complex. However, Freud never supported this additional classification.
Likewise, it may be an oversimplification to call the Electra complex a female version on Freud’s original Oedipus complex.
Freud’s theory of psychosexual development
Freud felt Jung’s Electra complex theory created an unnecessary separation. According to his original theory, the Oedipus complex wasn’t about the adult definition of sexual desire toward a parent.
In Freud’s Oedipal theory, children may develop a desire to possess a parent because that parent might represent a need gratification.
As the child develops sexually, that need gratification can involve into sexual stimuli. However, the concept of sex and sexuality isn’t something a child commonly understands at that age.
Freud believed both male and female children first fixated on their mother — the primary need-fulfiller — during their psychosexual development.
Around age 3 to 5 years old, children go through the phallic development phase, where both girls and boys might be fixated on the penis. However, Freud suggested a differentiation between boys and girls during this phase.
Girls and ‘penis envy’
During the phallic phase, Freud theorized that girls might realize they’re physically different than boys, understanding that they lack a penis. Freud referred to this as “penis envy.”
Again, penis envy is purely theoretical and has little to no empirical support by the wider scientific community. The theory isn’t used or accepted in modern psychology.
Girls might also learn that their mother doesn’t have a penis during this phase. Freud’s theory suggests this may cause girls to subconsciously blame their mother for somehow “castrating” them.
During this time of resentment, Freud hypothesized that girls may turn more towards their fathers and away from their mothers, until they entered the next phase of psychosexual development.
While Freud did address the female experience in his Oedipus complex theory, Jung felt Freud’s original theory was too heavily oriented towards explaining behavior in males.
So, Jung separated the female theory under its own label — the Electra complex. This was his attempt to fill in Freud’s knowledge gaps related to the psychosexual development of girls.
The Electra complex is considered a typical part of the phallic stage of psychosexual development, according to Jung’s theory.
However, this theory also states that it is possible to become “stuck” in this phase.
A typical part of development
Characteristics of the Electra complex are commonly seen as a transient phase of development for girls.
This is when a female child’s primal id — the subconscious part of the self present from birth — may cause her to move away from her mother due to Freud’s concept of penis envy.
During this time, girls may become possessive of their fathers and hateful toward their mothers.
The ego and superego
As psychosexual development progresses, female children may soon start to develop their ego and then superego. These are the components of personality that eventually drive conscious decisions and morality.
As the ego develops, Electra complex behaviors typically fade and girls begin to identify with their mothers again.
Unresolved phallic phase conflicts
But sometimes, those feelings of possession and desire toward the father figure don’t fade with development. Freud believed this was due to unresolved internal conflict during the phallic phase.
Because the Electra complex remains an unproven theory, the possible causes of unresolved internal conflict during the phallic phase remain scientifically unsettled.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
It’s possible that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), like trauma, could be a contributing factor to developing an Electra complex.
ACEs have been linked to many other conditions, including:
- chronic health problems
- mental health disorders
- substance use disorders
According to Jung’s theory, an Electra complex left unresolved in childhood may persist into adulthood.
Since Electra complex isn’t a formal mental health diagnosis, it may be difficult to tell if you’re experiencing symptoms.
Potential signs of Electra complex for women and women-identifying people could include:
- avoiding or being hostile toward your mother
- disliking your mother for no obvious reason
- fixating on only what your father does
- seeking out romantic partners that resemble or have characteristics of your father
- wanting to be overly involved in everything your father is doing
Just because you prefer your father over your mother doesn’t necessarily mean you’re experiencing Electra complex.
There are many reasons why children might form strong attachments to one parent over the other, such as emotional unavailability or parental absence.
Since the Electra complex remains an unproven and often controversial theory, it can’t be diagnosed. Therefore, there are currently no formal treatments for Electra complex.
However, if you’re concerned about the level of attachment you or your child might feel toward a parent, talking with a therapist can help. A therapist trained in child development can help you or your child work through the root of these complex emotions.
While Jung’s Electra complex intended to fill gaps in Freud’s Oedipus complex and build upon his overall theories of psychosexual development, it remains unproven and controversial.
As a result, the Electra complex is not a condition that can be diagnosed or formally treated.
Feeling strong emotions for one parent over another isn’t necessarily an indication that something is wrong with you, or that you didn’t develop correctly as a child.
Other aspects of childhood experience can sometimes impact your parental relationships and interactions, such as:
- home environment
- spiritual beliefs
Sometimes, a parent may have their own challenges that prevent a strong bond with children, such as emotional unavailability or absence.
However, if you suspect that you or your child might be feeling emotions that creep into the realm of desire or possessiveness for a parent, talking to a therapist may be a good idea.
If you’re ready to seek help, visit Psych Central’s guide to mental health support.