Careers in Psychology shares an inside look at what Marriage and Family Therapists do and how to become one.
At some point in every relationship, conflict arises. For many families, conflict can be dealt with amicably without long-term consequences. But sometimes, issues can’t be worked out on their own, whether due to differing personalities, behavioral issues, or even psychological disorders.
As a marriage and family therapist, you have the unique opportunity to help guide families back to a healthier path. Your empathetic nature, expert skillset, and dedication to bringing families together allows you to frame conflict in different perspectives and provide the tools your clients need to communicate more effectively and compassionately.
Let’s go through how to become a marriage counselor to learn why this rewarding psychology career might be the perfect choice for you.
What Is Marriage and Family Therapy?
Marriage and family therapy is a form of counseling that helps families work through issues that affect their home lives. This encompasses any kind of familial grouping including couples, parents and children, blended families, siblings, extended families, or any other type of relationship. Working together with a marriage and family therapistcan help couples minimize the possibility of divorce, or help parents argue less and communicate better with their children. This results in more harmonious home life and less stress on everyone involved.
All different types of families might be affected by any number of problems. There are, however, a few very common arguments that arise in many families, causing undue stress and problems, including infidelity, jealousy, financial disagreements, child-rearing, household responsibilities, substance abuse, mental illness, teenage rebellion, various career paths, and more.
Why Do We Need Marriage and Family Therapy?
Catching and resolving marriage and family problems as soon as possible can help minimize most of the negative effects down the road. Married couples that do not resolve their issues, for instance, may end up getting divorced, which will affect their children as well as themselves. In fact, many parenting experts agree that separations and divorces are generally rougher on the children in a family than the adults.
Even if couples don’t get divorced, the consequences of volatile home life can still have very devastating long-term effects, including emotional detachment from future partners, attention-seeking or reckless behavior, and substance abuse issues or other harmful coping mechanisms. Marriage and family therapists serve to help their patients avoid these outcomes by teaching families how to communicate more effectively and work out their differences. For many families, marriage and family therapy is often time well spent, reducing the time spent fighting as well as the risk of divorce.
What Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Do?
A marriage and family therapist uses psychotherapy tools, skills, and principles to repair family relationships and treat any underlying psychological issues that may be contributing to the discord. MFTs can diagnose and treat a variety of disorders that affect the family unit, from clinical disorders like depression, anxiety, and personality disorders to simpler issues like poor communication or heightened stress.
For families in distress, it can often be hard to pinpoint the causes of their arguments. This is often one of the first duties of a marriage and family therapist, and they’ll typically first meet and talk with all members of a family to assess the situation and determine the right treatment path. Most of the time, the therapist will continue to meet with the couple or family together to help them see how each family member reacts to the others. In some circumstances, however, a therapist may choose to meet with members of a family separately.
After discovering some possible underlying causes of major problems in a family, a marriage and family therapist can then help the family as a whole work through their issues. The therapist will often offer guidance and advice to frustrated family members, for instance, or he might teach them how to communicate more effectively. During therapy sessions, a marriage and family therapist may use several tools to allow patients to work through their difficulties. These include:
- Talk therapy: A marriage and family therapist will often start with letting clients each relay their side of the issues and will do more listening than talking during these meetings.
- Bodily observation: The therapist will also watch the members of a family closely for non-verbal body language, or clues to where certain problems may lie. For instance, a marriage and family therapist that witnesses a teenager rolling her eyes might deduce that actions such as these might make her parents feel disrespected.
- Role-playing exercises: During a session, a therapist may ask their clients to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes and do a role-playing activity to break their singular perspective and achieve a deeper level of empathy.
- Reflection exercises: Having family members reflect on specific memories can often speak volumes about how each interprets and reacts to different situations. This can also help bring feelings of warmth and togetherness when reflecting on happier times and remembering when communication and perspectives were more aligned.
- Reframing exercises: A common tool in a marriage and family therapist’s arsenal, a reframing exercise can be incredibly helpful to defuse tension created by accusations made in anger. For example, instead of, “You never listen and always talk over me,” a reframing exercise alters this statement to, “When you interrupt me when I speak, I feel like my words and opinions aren’t valid or valued.”
If you’re looking into how to become a marriage and family therapist, keep in mind that you won’t be the magic cure that ends all arguments in a household. Disagreements are part of being in any relationship. Instead of teaching families how to stop arguing, as a marriage and family therapist, you’ll help them learn to communicate more effectively, work through their differences, and become a stronger family unit.
Where Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Work?
Marriage and family therapists might work in several different settings, from clinical environments and medical clinics to schools and government agencies. They may work as part of a team with other medical professionals or on their own as either a consultant or a private practitioner. A few additional workplace options include:
- Social service offices
- Community centers
- Mental health facilities
- Hospitals and inpatient care clinics
- Schools and universities
- Addiction treatment centers
- Nursing homes
- Juvenile correction facilities
Many marriage and family therapists choose to open their own private practices, and a few might even make house calls, which involve visiting a household to observe the living situation or a neutral location to diffuse situational tension. Either of these options are often used during interventional events. However, it’s far more common for the patients to visit the therapist’s place of work for sessions.
Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist
If you’re wondering, “What qualifications do I need to be a family therapist?” understand that learning how to become a marriage and family therapist starts with assessing whether your passions and personality align with the unique needs of the profession. Aside from a genuine interest in helping families, becoming a marriage and family counselor requires a few characteristics, including:
- Excellent listening and communication skills.
- Objectivity and the ability to offer an unbiased, non-judgmental ear.
- A calm and peaceful demeanor to help diffuse situations of high tension.
- A comfortability with discussing extremely personal topics.
- Commitment to privacy.
If this sounds like you, then your next steps in how to become a marriage counselor are as follows:
Earn the appropriate marriage and family therapist degree—You’ll typically want to pursue a degree in psychology, with a bachelor’s being the minimum standard requirement for hire at many clinical practices and a master’s required to practice on your own. You can learn more about the educational requirements to become a marriage and family therapist
Accumulate clinical hours—You’ll need to complete supervised clinical practice hours with a licensed therapist or counselor before you can earn your state certification. These hours are set by your state licensing board and are often rolled into your graduate studies.
Earn your state license—To practice as a full-fledged marriage and family therapist, you’ll need to earn state licensure by passing one or more exams, depending on the certifications you’re pursuing. Once you’ve passed, you can apply for your license through your state’s specific certification board.
Once you’re fully licensed, expect to complete continuing education courses throughout your career to keep your certification current.
What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist?
A marriage and family therapist career requires a good deal of education, much like other mental health and therapy careers. You will typically start by earning a bachelor’s degree in an area such as psychology, social work, or counseling. This generally will take you around four years to complete, though it’s dependent on how your program is structured, whether your study is self-directed (such as with an online psychology program), and additional factors. While earning your marriage and family therapist degree, you should focus on taking as many courses that cover the marriage and family dynamic as possible, selecting electives in those areas if they aren’t already part of your program’s general curriculum.
After earning your bachelor’s, most state licensing boards also require you to earn your master’s degree to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. Your program should be accredited by at least one of the following national certification boards:
Master’s in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Counsel (MPCAC)
Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)
Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
Your master’s in marriage and family therapy often take anywhere from two to three years, including the year of clinical fieldwork that you’ll need to complete as part of your licensing preparations. The exact number of hours required varies from state to state—for example, New York requires applicants to complete 1,500 hours of supervised work experience, while California requires 3,000 hours of supervised work experience. Check with your state licensing board for specifics on these requirements and learn more about earning your MFT degrees online.
Once you’ve completed your marriage and family therapist degree and earned your state license, your education isn’t over. Most states require that you complete continuing education courses throughout your career in order to stay current with the latest advances in therapeutic philosophies, tools, and skills. These additional courses will also firmly establish you as an expert in your field, making your practice highly desirable for families seeking support and intervention.
You can also pursue separate certification in specific areas that you think will benefit your practice. This additional education includes specializations in art therapy, trauma, parent-child interactions, and more.
What Is the Annual Average Salary for a Marriage and Family Therapist?
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median marriage and family therapist salary in 2020 was $51,340. The top 10 percent of the profession earned an annual median salary of $92,930. Those working in the state government usually earn the most, with a median income of $78,450.
There are also some areas where it pays more to be a licensed marriage and family therapist. California has the largest employment rate of marriage and family therapists, followed by New Jersey and Pennsylvania. New Jersey also pays the highest annual mean marriage and family therapist salary ($78,960), followed by Illinois ($67,650)—both of which are significantly higher than the national average.
Start Helping Families in Need
No matter how “perfect” it may seem, all relationships experiences strain. But when that strain reaches a breaking point, you could be the difference in helping families get back on track to a healthy, loving coexistence. Becoming a marriage and family therapist means making a huge impact in your client’s lives, repairing what’s broken and offering perspective on how to start anew.