The Electra Complex: Are We All Just Dating Our Dads?

catherine zeta jones and micheal j. douglas
Earl Gibson III/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Earl Gibson III/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Don’t you ever just think, “My dad is so awesome. I wish I could just find someone like him.” Or, conversely, maybe your dad sucks and you think, “Fuck. My dad is the worst. Why do I keep dating people who treat me like shit?”

My dad is the raddest dude on the planet. He wears nature shirts, is exceedingly kind and pragmatic, and even sometimes talks to woodland creatures outside the kitchen window like they can hear him. My parents have one of those too-cute-it’s-almost-gross relationships, where he balances my mom's neurotic, precocious, wildly eccentric adorableness -- pulling her back to earth before her over-imaginative brain lifts her off, never to return.

My boyfriend is just like my father: calm, earnest, and supportive of everything I do. And the fact that I'm with this man actually has a lot to do with my dad. Because whether we like it or not, our parents have a profound effect on our dating choices.

Oedipus and Electra are complex(es)

Sigmund Freud famously penned his theories on the Oedipus Complex, aptly named for the Greek tragedy wherein the main character marries his mother and then blinds himself before self-banishment to the mountains. The Oedipal Complex, Freud theorized, suggests that young boys are in sexual competition with their fathers for their mother’s devotion.

The Electra Complex is Freud-protege Carl Jung’s complementary theory, in which a daughter is in sexual competition with her mother for her father’s devotion. I know you’re probably staving off the impulse to vomit right now. Rightly so. Dating your mom or dad is gross AF. But there is some truth to this theory.

Think about your relationships with your parents. Is the relationship positive or negative? Do you see any similarities in your past relationships? My guess is that you probably do.

It all begins when we’re children

While Freud and Jung’s theories have merit, we have to look deeper at our parental relationships to truly understand our choices as adults -- especially those of the romantic variety. Our relationships with our primary caregivers are the start of our maturation, and our first experience with other human beings. This primary caregiver is usually the mother (but not always).

Our relationships with our primary caregivers are the start of our maturation.

Dr. Stan Tatkin, a couple’s therapist and author of Wired for Love and Wired For Dating, says the secondary caregiver (usually the father figure) can have an acute influence on your personality. This secondary relationship helps to mold and shape a child’s ideas about the world and the people in it.

So, while both the maternal and paternal relationships you experience mold you, your relationship with your father is the foundation for all future relationships.

“If children do not receive approval and acceptance from both male and female energies," says psychotherapist and counselor Ira Israel, "they can be very creative about the ways they find approval and acceptance outside of the home.”

Your parents imprint lessons upon you that you take out into your adult life. No matter the relationship you have with good old mom and dad, you cannot escape their influence. Nature doesn’t care what you want.

We’re constantly giving women shit about their “daddy issues,” telling them they choose bad, distant, or aloof guys because they feel abandoned by their fathers. Why?

Your daddy issues fuck you up because your brain doesn’t know what is good for you and what isn’t good for you. All your brain knows is what is recognizable to you and then gravitates toward it. Whether your father is the coolest or a total alcoholic/nutcase/dickwad, your brain is like, “YAY! I KNOW WHAT THIS IS! I WANT IT! OMG LOVE ME!”

“It’s not a mistake that we choose these people," Tatkin says. "Nature doesn’t care if who we find familiar is an asshole or not, as long as they’re familiar.”

“Nature doesn’t care if who we find familiar is an asshole or not, as long as they’re familiar.”
-Dr. Stan Tatkin

Tatkin also points out that it isn’t merely our parents who influence our dating choices but also who we choose to date is a part of a "vast pool of memories,” of people we’ve met all of our lives. Bits and pieces of people go into a vat and then the people we’re attracted to wind up being a combination those collected memories.

Who cares about your life getting ruined because your feelings don’t listen to logic, right?

To ditch daddy issues, practice some self-awareness

Can you overcome your daddy issues? Can you rewrite your dating history and FORCE yourself to stop following your feelings and choose the GOOD GUY for once? Can you change what you find attractive?

Israel says yes -- through “conscious loving and authentic communications.” You have to stop being the person someone wants you to be and instead be who you are and learn that you are worthy of love. If you love yourself, you won’t let yourself be treated like shit. You have to accept, decode, and understand your poor choices. You have to take ownership of them in order to change them.

“Women should be cognizant of the dynamic they have with their fathers or father-figures so that they don’t repeat patterns over and over,” Israel says.

You can’t just be like, “Screw it. I guess I’ll always just date miserable fucklords because I can’t help it.” No, that isn’t a good excuse. You have to work hard and undo the damage. It is doable. The first step is taking responsibility, acknowledging your issues, and taking measures to deal with them.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Gigi Engle is Thrillist's Sex and Dating Staff Writer. Her dad is the coolest and so is her boyfriend, actually. Such is life. Follow her lovable crazy on Twitter @GigiEngle.