Freud on Attraction: Daddy & Mummy Issues

Does your girlfriend fit in almost perfectly in your family photos? Does she look like she belongs? Well, there might be a reason for that… and you’re not going to like it.

The sexual imprinting hypothesis predicts that an individual’s partner will facially resemble their opposite sex parent. Dating a girl or boy that looks like your mother or father explains why we sometimes confuse a couple (e.g. husband & wife) as siblings (e.g. brother & sister) instead.

Positive sexual imprinting is a process in which an individual uses their opposite-sex parent as a model or prototype for selecting their significant other. On the other hand, negative sexual imprinting, commonly known as “The Westermarck Effect” is the strong sexual aversion to relatives who lived together during early childhood (e.g. siblings). The elimination of sexual desires based on genetic relatedness is evolutionarily advantageous and avoids inbreeding between family members.

Bates Motel explores the twisted relationship between Norman Bates and his mother, Norma. (Source: Den of Geek)

Research on sexual imprinting describes how romantic attraction to someone may depend on the physical appearance of your parents. A study of 70 heterosexual adults determined that there was no facial similarity between women’s partners and fathers, but men’s partners tended to resemble their mothers. Men are more likely to date a woman who looks like their mother; they also perceive faces which resemble their siblings as more sexually attractive. The opposite effect was observed in women. For females, faces of individuals sharing a greater amount of similar features with siblings were rated as less sexually attractive.

Thus, females have a deeper aversion (negative sexual imprinting) in engaging in sexual activities with males who look like family members. Meanwhile, positive sexual imprinting is more common amongst men. A man’s ideal partner or “dream girl” may resemble how his female family members look like… assuming she isn’t actually a long-lost cousin. After all, “a boy’s best friend is his mother”, as mentioned in the movie Psycho.

Freud’s Explanation: Unresolved Conflict

Portrait of Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) as he sits behind his desk in his study, Vienna, Austria, 1930s. The office is filled with figurines and statuettes of various origins. (Source: Authenticated News/Getty Images)

According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, a man whose girlfriend emulates his mum’s appearance is due to unresolved conflict. The conflict occurs at the third (phallic) stage of psychosexual development, between ages 3-6 years old. Unresolved conflict at this stage causes fixation: boys become mother-fixated while girls become father-fixated. Hence the terms ‘daddy’s girl’ and ‘mummy’s boy’. As adults, these individuals will seek romantic partners who resemble their opposite-sex parent.

The Oedipus & Electra Complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, 1784. Bénigne Gagneraux. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The psychologists Sigmund Freud & Carl Jung refer to the unresolved conflict as the Oedipal Complex (for boys) and Electra Complex (for girls). These terms explain a child’s desire for sexual relations with the parent of the opposite sex and hostility towards the same-sex parent. According to the theory, boys develop a sexual attraction towards their mothers while girls develop a sexual attraction towards their fathers.

Boys strive to replace their fathers who are perceived as a rival for their mother’s affection (e.g. preventing their dad from hugging or kissing their mum). Girls compete with their mothers for the affection of their fathers (e.g. wishing to marry their fathers when they grow up).

Is Freud Correct?

The Oedipus complex remains a controversial concept in modern Psychology, and is often highly disregarded, despite its popularity. Apart from the taboo associated with sex, incest, and female sexuality, Freud’s theories are considered questionable for other reasons.

Besides making the concepts of father-daughter and mother-son relationships uncomfortable topics to discuss, Freud assumes that competition for the attention of the opposite sex parent is sexual in nature, which is not necessarily true. Science does indicate that men tend to prefer partners who resemble their mothers and sisters, compared to women. However, this does not imply that they are sexually attracted to their blood relatives as a consequence. Instead, it simply suggests men establish their preferences for partners based on qualities and characteristics of their female family members. Don’t worry, you don’t want to sleep with your mum; you just use her as a template for finding a girlfriend.

The psychoanalytic theory is not only assumptious in simplifying the complexities of attraction, it does not offer precise predictions, too. It is also not compatible with other evolutionary explanations of relationships. Freud also somewhat neglected the female version of psychodynamics. Jung introduced the Electra complex (1913) as the Oedipus Complex originally referred to a son’s desire for his mother, yet Freud disapproved the proposal of this term.

Does This Mean I’m In Love With My Mom or Dad?

The Reader, which featured Kate Winslet in an Oscar-winning role, is a movie that alludes to the Oedipus complex. (Source: IMDB)

No, you aren’t in love with your mum or dad… not in that way at least. As children, we learn by imitating our parents (i.e. learning to talk), and may also want to emulate their physical appearance in our romantic partners. We may simply base our romantic preferences on role models like our parents (physically at least), if this even happens at all. You may sleep better tonight knowing Freud’s sexual explanations behind mate preferences are highly refuted and criticised. Despite what Freud’s theory may suggest, most mother-son and father-daughter relations don’t involve any romantic attraction whatsoever.


By Sophie Byfield