What Is the Electra Complex?

Electra complex in a young girl
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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 affections of her father. It is comparable to the male Oedipus complex. Resolving the Electra complex ultimately leads to identification with the same-sex parent.

How Does the Electra Complex Work?

According to Sigmund 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.

While the term Electra complex is frequently associated with Freud, it was actually Carl Jung who coined the term in 1913. Freud rejected the term and described it as an attempt "to emphasize the analogy between the attitude of the two sexes." Freud himself used the term feminine Oedipus attitude to describe what we now refer to as the Electra complex.

When Does the Electra Complex Take Place?

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. Such fixations, Freud believed, often led to anxiety and played a role in neurosis and maladaptive behaviors in adulthood.

Freud described the Oedipal complex as a boy's longing for his mother and competition with his father.

The boy possesses an unconscious desire to replace his father as his mother's sexual partner, thus leading to a rivalry between son and father.

At the same time, however, the boy also has a fear that his father will discover these desires and castrate him out of punishment. To resolve this anxiety, the boy instead begins to identify with his father and develop a desire to be more like his father. Freud believed that it was this process that leads children to accept their gender roles, develop and understanding of their own sexuality and even form a sense of morality.

A Brief Background of the Electra Complex

The term itself is derived from the Greek myth of Electra and her brother Orestes, who plotted the death of their mother for revenge of their father's murder. Freud developed the underlying ideas of the Electra complex, although he did not term it as such. Freud instead referred to a girl's tendency to complete with her mother for possession of her father as the feminine Oedipus attitude or the negative Oedipus 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. It was Jung who went on to dub Freud's feminine Oedipus attitude as the Electra complex.

Defence Mechanisms and the Electra Complex

A number of defense mechanisms play a role in the resolving the Electra complex. It is the primal id that demands the child to possess her mother and compete with her father. To resolve the conflict, these urges and desires must first be repressed from conscious memory. During the next part of the process, identification occurs. The girl begins to identify with her mother and incorporate many of the same personality characteristics into her ego. This process also allows the girl to internalize her mother's morality into her super-ego, which ultimately directs her to follow the rules of her parents and society.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

References

Freud, S. (1962). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. (n.p.): Basic Books.

Jung, C. G. (1913). The theory of psychoanalysis, Psychoanalytic Review, 1, 1-40.

Scott, J. (2005). Electra after Freud: Myth and culture. Cornell Studies in the History of Psychiatry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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