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How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist: An Complete Guide

Family with one child on a session with a counselor. Post pandemic. Belgrade, Serbia

Everyone has a family, and nearly everyone gets married at least once. But although these social bonds form the cores of most human social interactions, they’re often fraught with tension because of cultural issues, interpersonal dynamics, past trauma, and similar problems. A Marriage and Family Therapist can help couples and families navigate through challenges to become stronger together and as individuals.

In some cases, interpersonal issues cannot be worked out solely by the individuals in those marriages or families. When outside counseling or assistance is needed, marriage and family therapists may help.

Combining psychological principles with counseling skills, marriage and family therapists or MFTs provide married couples and family members invaluable services and support.

Are you thinking of pursuing the career of a marriage and family therapist? Read on to discover everything you need to know about what marriage and family therapists do and how you can become one.

What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

Marriage and family therapy is specialized counseling that revolves around helping couples or small groups work through interpersonal issues and challenging dynamics. Even the closest families sometimes have problems because of history, behavior, or even psychological conditions. Marriage and family therapists can help individuals overcome issues like:

  • Marriage problems
  • Understanding different argumentation techniques between couples or family members
  • Solving miscommunication problems
  • Improving communication with children or siblings

With the help of a skilled marriage and family therapist, families will have more harmonious home lives and may experience less day-to-day stress. Family members who do not get along with one another may find their relationships improved after a few sessions with a marriage and family therapist.

What Do Marriage and Family Therapists Do?

A marriage and family therapist is a specialized counselor or therapist. They study many of the same fundamental concepts and skills as generalized therapists, who work one-on-one with patients or specialize in other focuses.

However, marriage and family therapists are more skilled than general therapists when navigating group dynamics and helping several individuals communicate and work with one another. Because of this, marriage and family therapists study concepts like interpersonal communication styles, group therapy techniques and strategies, and long-term relationship tendencies or habits.

Furthermore, marriage and family therapists are licensed to diagnose and treat specific disorders affecting couples or larger families. These diagnoses may include depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and generalized personality issues like poor communication skills or anger management difficulties.

To help their patients, family therapists may use different tools or techniques to produce desirable results, such as:

  • Talk therapy, in which clients speak to the therapist and one another in a safe space. Those not talking are instructed to listen rather than try to get their side of the story in quickly
  • Role-playing exercises, in which family members or couples imagine themselves in the shoes of other individuals or family members for empathetic purposes
  • Reframing exercises, in which the therapist tries to defuse tension and alleviate anger by reframing thoughts or complaints
  • Reflection exercises, in which family members or couples reflect on their memories or intense feelings to help other members of the family understand their viewpoints better

While marriage and family therapists cannot solve interpersonal problems, they can help individuals suffering from such issues by acting as an impersonal and empathetic third party.

Related Resource: Top 12 Jobs that Help People

Where and When Do Marriage and Family Therapists Work?

Marriage and family therapists work in collective or private therapeutic practices. However, marriage and family therapists may also work at medical clinics, government agencies, and schools. Potential workplaces can include:

  • Mental health facilities
  • Schools and universities, especially if the therapist also teaches in this subject
  • Nursing homes
  • Social services organizations and offices
  • Hospitals
  • Inpatient care clinics
  • Addiction treatment centers

Marriage and family therapists usually work standard business hours. If a marriage and family therapist runs their own practice, they can set their hours however they please.

How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

Becoming a certified and licensed marriage and family therapist involves acquiring the requisite degrees, getting a certain number of clinical practice hours under your belt, and finally passing one or more certification tests. Let’s break down the steps to become a marriage and family therapist one by one.

Acquire a Bachelor’s Degree

You’ll first need a bachelor’s degree in a field related to marriage and family therapy. There are many applicable degrees to choose from, depending on your preferences or skill sets. These include psychology, counseling, sociology, or social work.

Therapists come from various backgrounds and areas of study. Therefore, you don’t need to worry about having an appropriate bachelor’s degree for a graduate program so long as it comes from the above list.

When choosing a bachelor’s degree program, be sure to include classes in group therapy, therapy, and psychotherapy at a minimum. These are prerequisite courses for later courses you’ll take in a graduate program.

Acquire a Graduate Degree

All licensed and practicing marriage and family therapists must have a graduate degree from either a private or public university.

You have two degrees to choose from if you want to become a marriage and family therapist. However, both usually take two to three years to complete after acquiring a bachelor’s degree. This timeframe includes the clinical practice hours required for licensure for many programs.

Marriage and Family Therapy vs. Other Mental Health Degrees

The standard graduate degree for an MFT is a marriage and family therapy degree. Suppose you take a marriage and family therapy master’s program. In that case, you’ll progress through a curriculum focusing on human cognition, behavior, and social sciences. Many of your courses will cover how people relate to one another, especially in tight-knit family units. The courses you take could include topics like:

  • Couples therapy
  • Counseling practices and therapeutic techniques
  • Developmental science
  • Law and ethics of therapy and medical practices
  • Research methodologies
  • Clinical techniques, interventions, and applications
  • Multicultural studies so you can treat individuals from several cultures
  • Population or culture-specific studies
  • Systems theory
  • Family systems
  • The counseling process
  • Studies on specific issues like eating disorders, grief, trauma, sexuality, chemical dependency, personality disorders, etc.

Furthermore, all students in an MFT degree program will learn when they are ethically obligated to refer one of their clients to other professionals.

 

Alternatively, you may pursue a graduate degree in mental health counseling. Mental health counselors must learn many of the same fundamental topics or specializations as marriage and family therapists. You can acquire a marriage and family therapist position even if you have a mental health counseling degree.

Such programs will include coursework and studies on topics like:

  • Cultural factors
  • Counseling theories and counseling models
  • Crisis intervention techniques
  • Psychological tests
  • Mental health disorders
  • Family dynamics and systems
  • Inpatient, outpatient, and aftercare services and networks
  • Government policies for mental health treatment and counseling services

 

Either graduate degree path could work for you. It just depends on your preferences. You will be able to acquire therapist positions with other specializations aside from marriage and family counseling.

Therefore, if you only want to provide marriage and family counseling as your soul career path, an MFT graduate degree is your best choice.

Program Accreditations for Marriage and Family Therapists

Since marriage and family therapists are medical practitioners, they can only be licensed if they receive a degree accredited by a recognized organization. The following associations and councils accredit degree programs:

Each accreditation designates a given program as having specific quality standards or rigor. When you get a degree accredited by one or several of these organizations, you’ll be more attractive to prospective employers and acquire licensure more easily.

Acquire Two Years of Experience in the Field

All states have specific licensure requirements for marriage and family therapists. You are required to complete up to 3000 hours on average of clinical practice experience while supervised by a licensed marriage and family counselor. You can complete these hours throughout your graduate degree or after you graduate. The clinical practice experience will take place at a clinical counseling facility.

During this clinical practice, you’ll learn and explore the procedures and methods of this field. The practice hours give you the chance to put your academic knowledge into practical use.

Note that each state has a different minimum hour requirement for clinical practice. Furthermore, you can separate the hours into distinct categories like direct contact therapy, indirect contact therapy, and face-to-face supervised therapy. Click here to find your state’s requirements.

Become Licensed to Practice in Your State

After acquiring your degrees and clinical practice hours, you’ll need to pass licensing exams.

All states require you to pass the “Examination in Marriage and Family Therapy” exam. The exam covers the topics you learned during your graduate degree program and in your clinical practice hours.

Some states also require you to pass a state jurisprudence exam, though not all. A state jurisprudence exam tests your knowledge of your state’s specific laws that relate to counseling and marriage and family therapy.

Once you pass your exam(s), you’ll be permitted to practice counseling and call yourself a licensed counselor in a specific state. If you move, you’ll need to take another exam. This exam ensures you know the topics required by your new state before you can transition your license and begin practicing.

There are several different licenses you may receive, including:

  • LMFT or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • LAMFT or Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
  • LMFC or Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor
  • LCMFT or Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist
  • CMFT or Certified Marriage and Family Therapist

Some states will provide you with an MFT intern license if you are currently in an MFT master’s program and working toward full licensure. This intern license will qualify you to practice some marriage and family therapy duties while supervised by a licensed MFT.

Lastly, you may need additional materials to apply for your license after passing your exam(s). For example, some states require you to submit your school transcripts or internship reports and pay an examination fee. You will also be required to submit to and pass a criminal background check.

Continuing Education Requirements

Once you’ve been certified as an MFT, your learning is not over. You’ll also need to complete continuing education or CE hours. Different states have varying CE hour requirements, which may be required every year or every two years. Most continuing education hours can be completed online or by attending classes.

The continuing education hours update you on the evolving field of marriage and family therapy and ensure that you provide modern support to your patients and clients. Each time you complete your CE requirements, your license is renewed for your state of practice.

Best Online Degree Programs for Marriage and Family Therapists

There are dozens of good online degree programs if you want to get your graduate degree in marriage and family therapy. However, choosing between them can be challenging.

Let’s look at some of the best online programs to consider. These online programs provide most of their academic or classroom educational content over the Internet. Regardless of the online nature of your degree program, clinical or practice hours must still be completed in-person at licensed therapeutic facilities.

Eisner Institute for Professional Studies

This school’s MFT program is perfect if you want to acquire licensure in California. With 90 credit hours to progress through, you’ll study content like family therapy, developmental psychology, foundations of psychotherapy, group counseling, psychopathology, and other related topics.

Eisner Institute’s program could also be a good choice if you need an affordable pathway to graduate education. At just $110 per credit hour, this school offers one of the cheapest online master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy.

Northcentral University

Northcentral offers a highly accredited Master of Arts degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. It was the first distance-based or online-focused master’s degree in the subject to be accredited by the COAMFTE. It’s an ideal choice if you want to complete both the academic and practical components of the degree simultaneously.

Once you enter the program, you can earn practicum hours or internships in your local area and be supervised by NCU administrative staff.

If you don’t live in-state or if your state requires more than 45 credit hours to achieve licensure, you can take extra courses to meet whatever requirements are necessary. Keep in mind that, at $840 per credit hour, this is one of the more expensive choices for graduate programs.

View More about Northcentral University

Concordia University – Wisconsin & Ann Arbor

This university’s online marriage and family therapy program is an excellent alternative to a traditional MFT program. It’s a Master of Science in Family Life. A heavy Christian perspective is woven into the degree program.

You can progress through the program’s extensive range of content, including 120 practicum hours that you’ll take while completing your classes online. It takes about two years to complete and features an asynchronous instructional style, so you don’t need to worry about attending class at a specific time each day.

Most of the course material focuses on counseling skills that will prepare you for individual counseling and couples going through tough times in their marriages.

View More about Concordia University - Wisconsin & Ann Arbor

Walden University

Walden University’s Family and Marriage Therapy degree is a generalized online program that allows you to choose from five specializations: addiction counseling, forensic counseling, military families and culture, career counseling, and trauma and crisis counseling. The program is accredited by the CACREP mentioned above, no matter which specialization you choose.

At $470 per credit hour, it’s a mid-range graduate program for marriage and family therapists in terms of cost. Consider choosing this online graduate program if you want to guarantee that a future employer will accept your degree.

View More about Walden University

Palo Alto University

Palo Alto’s M.A. in Counseling can be specialized to emphasize marriage, family, and child counseling to suit your future career path. It combines extensive empirical studies with tons of counseling training in person. Once you complete the program, you’ll immediately be eligible for licensure in California.

It’s 90 credit hours long and can be completed ahead of schedule if you have some courses that qualify from your previous school. You’ll study courses like legal and ethical foundations, professional identity, clinical interviewing, and even attend a workshop focused on child abuse and reporting and psychopathology.

View More about Palo Alto University

Capella University

Capella University offers a blended and accredited master’s program for future marriage and family therapists. It includes current and dynamic coursework in addition to residencies and field experiences.

In total, the program requires you complete 100 hours of practicum work plus another 600 hours of a supervised internship. These requirements result in a well-rounded educational background that will prepare you for any future therapeutic position. The program is a little longer than average at 92 credit hours.

View More about Capella University

Liberty University

This school’s Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy is a fully accredited pathway to employment. It includes a three-credit-hour internship and another three-credit-hour practicum. Both are required before you graduate.

You’ll find classes that emphasize individual and group counseling theories and techniques. This program uses a faith-based approach.

View More about Liberty University

Average Salaries of Marriage and Family Therapists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, marriage and family therapists earn an average of about $51,340 per year. However, there is a lot of variability in this profession. For example, the BLS also reports that the lowest 10% of marriage and family therapists earn an average of $33,000 per year. In comparison, the highest 10% earn nearly $93,000 per year.

Your pay as a marriage and family therapist will heavily depend on your experience level, the number of clients you have (if you operate an independent practice), and where you practice. States with a higher cost of living often require higher salaries to compensate.

Even after receiving a designated MFT degree, you may be able to transition in your career and try other professions, such as:

Related Resource: Best Jobs for Psychology Majors

Hiring Potential for Marriage and Family Therapists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, future marriage and family therapists have good career outlooks. Recent projections indicate that employment opportunities are set to grow by about 16% until 2030, which is faster than average than other occupations. In raw numbers, this translates to about 8500 new marriage and family therapist positions opening up each year on average.

Summary

Marriage and family therapists play a significant role in the lives of American families and married couples. Suppose you believe you can help individuals overcome trauma or work through problematic interpersonal dynamics. In that case, this position could be perfect for you.

With the inclusion of quality online graduate programs, you can achieve the qualifications you need to become a marriage and family therapist from afar. Now, let’s GetEducated!

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