Australia Counselling member Philipa Thornton is a psychologist and marriage counsellor who works with individuals and couples in the eastern suburbs of Sydney.
Philipa has a passion for working with couples that have experienced an affair or infidelity.
She helps couples recover from infidelity by drawing on her extensive experience of couples and relationship dynamics, and seeks to help the couple restore trust, security and safety in their love relationship.
Here’s what she had to say on the issue of infidelity when we spoke to her…
Tell us a bit about your practice- where it is, who you work with and the services you offer
I am an experienced Medicare registered psychologist, psychotherapist, and licensed clinical supervisor of counsellors and psychologists.
My private practice, Marriage Works, specialises in couple counselling and I also have Psych Solutions offering individual therapy with a Medicare focus and both are based in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. As a fully registered psychologist I am able to offer both Medicare rebates if applicable and fully rebated services for all health insurance providers, coverage permitting. I provide relationship counselling and supervision in person via Skype for singles and couples.
I’m a firm believer that psychological health is interconnected to your physical and material world. That’s why I am highly experienced in Ego State Therapy, Systemic Couple Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation and Interpersonal Psychotherapy. For the treatment of trauma I have trained in advanced Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Faster EFT and Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).
I originally started out working with troubled youth with the Salvation Army in Cabramatta before being recruited by the NSW health department as a drug and alcohol counsellor for many years. Here I had the privilege of working on the teams of outstanding clinical services in this field– Kirketon Road Centre, Langton Centre and the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre. It was at the Langton Centre of Surry Hills, where the counselling had a narrative focus and I worked with individuals and offered group therapy, that I kept hearing of people’s struggles in their personal and family relationships issues.
How did you become interested in couples and specifically working in the area of infidelity?
I felt stuck somewhat in the frustrations and limitations in individual therapy. It was then I decided I needed to broaden my professional knowledge and was personally selected by Relationships Australia to train as an intern by completing their prestigious Graduate Diploma in Couple Therapy, while working as a counsellor in their organisation. I haven’t looked back since, opening my private practice several years ago. This superior training has given me practical interventions and sound clinical couple therapy skills.
Working for Relationships Australia over the years I have helped many clients overcome negative relationship patterns, childhood trauma, sexual abuse or assault, posttraumatic stress disorder, divorce, infidelity, low self-esteem, post separation parenting, anxiety or depression. It has been an incredible journey and I am proud to have successfully helped hundreds of people break free from the pain of their history to regain their futures. It is a real privilege to work with the people who come to see me. It takes real courage to seek help and begin to repair relationship crisis. This is especially poignant when dealing with the pain of infidelity in a partnership.
What do you believe causes infidelity and affairs?
The myth is that affairs only happen in unhappy or unloving relationships. I can tell you in my experience infidelity happen in good marriages, as work places and the Internet and social media providing fertile breeding grounds for “friend-ships” that can gradually turn into love affairs.
There are multiple factors – low self worth, personality, opportunity, impulse control issues, dependency problems, poor history of problem resolution, and communication, family and intimacy issues to name a few that may contribute to infidelity.
I have seen partners who have used prostitutes and brothels as a means to bolster self-esteem, escape or dull the pain of childhood trauma and their unhappy marriage. Of course this merely exacerbated the problems. I’ve heard spouses tell me of their loneliness and emotional disconnection that had occurred in a long term relationship and when they found admiring eyes elsewhere they stepped out of the relationship rather than risking being vulnerable in their partnership.
Is infidelity caused by one gender more than the other?
We have all seen the headline makers – Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, so it’s easy to make the assumption it’s men who are cheating. However a recent study by Professor Joris Lammers suggests it is power not gender that is a predictor of infidelity in their study of over 1200 executives.
According to Yanyi Djamba, director of the Auburn University of Montgomery Centre for demographic Research “ Men are still more likely to cheat that women. But the gender gap is closing.”
Anecdotally in my practice I would say about 60/40 men to women have cheated on their partner. The nature of extra marital affairs is changing – who would have even heard of the terms cybersex or sexting ten years ago. Access to online dating sites increases the ease of cheating. We are also under increased media pressure and advertising to aspire to a Hollywood idealised version of a love relationship which glosses over the hard fact long term relationships take sustained effort and work to maintain stability after the initial romantic glow fades when your relationship matures.
Can a couple survive a long-term affair, or is it the end of the relationship?
What is common is that both parties have almost always assumed fidelity but have never discussed protection mechanisms to prevent intrusions into their relationship. This is something we will spend some time unpacking in therapy for each couple it is unique and something that needs to be addressed for prevention.
The discovery of an affair whether suspected or not, is a trauma of seismic proportions to a marriage. Its ramifications can be very close to what occurs in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is where a traumatic event has occurred that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless.
In fact some of the symptomology is remarkably similar: Signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 1) Re-experiencing the traumatic event 2) Avoiding reminders of the trauma 3) Increased anxiety and emotional arousal These symptoms can come out of the blue, slowly build up or come and go overtime. Sometimes they will appear from nowhere. At other times a reminder or a flashback image or thought will trigger them – your waitresses name is Jenny the same name as the affair partner; your partner has to revisit the town where they had the affair and others that will be difficult to predict.
I am really grateful I have been trained in incredibly powerful and effective techniques that offer resolution and relieve stress so efficiently that people are amazed. It is beneficial at times to offer individual private sessions to help process the shock of finding the text message or email from a lover or intrusive thoughts, flashback with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Faster EFT and the gold standard for PTSD -Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing EMDR.
I had a client whose regular driving route to the shops went directly past the brothel her husband had visited. Naturally she would get angry and upset on that drive. After one session of EFT she was so excited when she told me she drove past it and chuckled to herself, as she felt so empowered from the EFT session. The sting of that trigger was gone and she certainly felt a lot freer. Surely this can only help their marriage!
Tell us about your approach and why you believe the way you work is effective in helping couples overcome infidelity
Each partner has a role to play in the repair both in and out of the therapy office. The betrayed persons tasks:
- Express the anger, rage and hurt.
- Ask for details, if so desired.
- Identify what helps and to ask for it. For example being able to ask for reassurance without accusations or attacks that further harm the relationship.
- Move beyond the pain.
- Process the traumatic memories if necessary.
- Understand letting go emotionally might take time for one’s partner.
- Forgive (later on in their own time, for themselves)
The unfaithful persons tasks:
- End the affair
- Show remorse
- Demonstrate real empathy.
- Remain extremely patient.
- Expect ups and downs, as there inevitably will be setbacks.
- Step up and do what it take’s to reassure one’s partner.
- Examine the personal reasons the affair occurred and address the issues.
- Committing to and promise change, follow through is very important for rebuilding their integrity.
In therapy we identify what helps and what hurts to prevent further harm.
We work to develop repair rituals for the couple to get back on track when there is an upset as the healing process continues. Later we can move beyond the above tasks, working on identifying areas in the marriage that require improvement and rebuild trust.
A common question the first time I see couples is will we ever get through this? My answer is YES!
Not only do I wish to inspire confidence as a marriage friendly therapist but I also want to offer hope. Hope that with work relationships not only survive but also go on to a deeper level of intimacy and connection that would never have been possible had it not been for this crisis. Not that they would like to repeat this trauma!
I also warn people it requires time and effort. In the beginning it’s very difficult and more about containing the hurt and damage to the relationship. Later it is about resourcing and strengthening the relationship in order to provide a sanctuary that offers maximum security to all and creates a failsafe alarm system for prioritising the relationship needs. This is something we will spend some time working through in the therapy for each couple it is a unique process and special equation to match their needs.
Yes, healing can occur and probably will occur naturally in most cases, however therapy benefits you by fast tracking the process. My message is hold on to the hope even in those bleakest moments!
On a personal note, tell us something that you’re passionate about or love to do in your spare time
When I am not in my office you will find me walking in one of Sydney’s beautiful parks where I often practise Yoga, which I love as it makes me feel good and gives me a greater sense of connection to the world in a compassionate and mindful way.