Become a Marriage and Family Therapist – MFT Degree and Schooling Guide [2024]

What is a Marriage and Family Therapist?

A marriage and family therapist (MFT) helps individuals, couples, and children overcome and manage emotional and mental health disorders. This can include any problems in relationships such as family, marriage, and friendships.

This is a specialized form of psychology, in which the therapist has training to examine personal relationships in family or marriage. Marriage and family therapists listen to clients, their questions, and concerns to develop a plan and strategies to help with their concerns. The goal is to help the individual, family, or married couple improve their lives.

Common focuses are placed on obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, substance abuse, low self-esteem, and a range of anxiety issues. These disorders can affect the person directly as well as have an impact on their marriage and family.

By treating the individual and their relationships with others it is possible to overcome problems for a happier life, which the therapist helps the patient work towards.

What Does a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) Do?

First of all, marriage and family therapists, also known as family therapists, couple therapists, and/or MFTs, work with clients who are experiencing relationship, family, couple, and/or personal issues.

The goal of a marriage and family therapist is to improve the relationships within the family or couple. This professional studies the whole family (i.e. family unit), instead of focusing solely on the individual manifesting the symptoms.

MFTs also work with issues like: parenting problems, child behavioral problems,  marital problems, divorce, blended families/step-parents and children, substance abuse, addiction, alcoholism, bullying issues, learning disabilities, dysfunctional relationships, grieving, communication and problem-solving issues, depression, anxiety, phobias, etc.

Psychological distress and psychological disorders are examined within the family context. A marriage and family therapist studies and analyzes interactional/communication patterns within families to help them break unhealthy habits and cycles. Treatment approaches may include: family participation, family therapy, and multi-family group therapy. Regardless of the treatment approach, the family system always plays an important role in the recovery process.

Commonly treated disorders, illnesses, and issues:

  • Depression & Anxiety
  • Pediatric Psychological, Behavioral, and Emotional Disorders
  • Marital and Relationship Problems
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Delinquency
  • Substance Abuse
  • Addictions
  • Alcoholism
  • Domestic Violence/Child Abuse
  • Severe Mental Illness (i.e. Schizophrenia)
  • Chronic Physical Illnesses (i.e. Lupus)

Commonly Provided Services:

  • Assessment, Diagnosis and Treatment of Mental Illnesses and Psychological Distress
  • Individual Child/Adult Psychotherapy
  • Couple, Family, and Group Therapy
  • Treatment Plan Development
  • Marriage, Family and Couples Counseling
  • Pre-Marital Counseling
  • Marital Enrichment
  • Relationship Life Coaching

Why is Marriage and Family Therapy Important?

Most people probably wish their family relationships could always go smoothly and be without conflict or problems. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Whether it is a relationship between a husband and wife or parents and children, relationships between family members can be complicated.

People have different expectations, communications styles and past experiences that shape their life. These differences can lead to conflict. In addition, life circumstances, such as financial problems, job stressors and other issues can increase the chances of relationship problems.

The problems in relationships can have a negative impact on entire families. Healing from conflict is not always smooth sailing. The good news is couples and family members who are having conflict do not have to try to solve their problems alone. Marriage and family therapy is an option for people who need help with relationship challenges and issues.

A marriage and family therapist is a neutral third party who can help an individual take a look at their own behavior and provide strategies for resolving issues. For example, the ability to communicate well is often lacking when conflicts develop. Emotions run high and listening to the other person’s point of view is not always easy.

Marriage and family therapists can help family members develop effective ways to communicate. Therapists can also play a vital role in helping clients develop more self-awareness, empathy and understanding.

The skills and strategies learned during marriage and family therapy can help family members express their needs, heal from past hurt and misunderstandings and foster healthier and stronger relationships.

What are the Requirements to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist?

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) Degree

Post-secondary education is required in two forms: undergraduate and graduate degree programs. The undergraduate program in psychology, sociology, counseling, or similar fields of study is highly recommended. It is a four year course where core courses are taken along with recommended electives relating to psychology, counseling, and sociology.

The graduate degree program ends with the receipt of a master’s degree. It is a two year program with more emphasis on the candidate’s chosen field of study: marriage and family therapy. Courses may include child psychology as well as human development with a focus on how the brain develops, inherited versus social traits, and can include anthropology.

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) Training

In addition to the university course work, candidates will have supervised practical training through an internship. Licensing boards vary from state to state; however, internship hours are typically 3,000 of supervised experience along with 104 weeks of training to gain their certification.

Couples, family, and children is a minimum of 500 hours of internship training; while other hours can include individual, group, telephone, and telemedicine counseling hours. Additional continuing education courses, as well as independent study to maintain proper education levels are necessary.

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) Licensing and Certification

Once the hours of course work and internship are met, a candidate can take the exam. The “pass” level can vary from state to state, like the internship training hours. If a person passes the exam they still have to wait for the actual issuance of the marriage and family therapy license.

Related Reading: How to Become a Family Counselor

What Skills Do You Need To Be a Marriage and Family Therapist?

  • Impartiality – Working with more than one client at a time means that a marriage or family therapist has to be extremely careful to be impartial. The point of therapy such as this, is that all parties feel like they have a chance to express their views and be listened to. A therapist cannot show a bias to one party and must, instead, guide the conversation to reach a conclusion that all are happy with.
  • Excellent listening skills – With many participants in a therapy session, a marriage or family therapist needs to be able to listen to each participant and understand their point of view to ensure that they are effectively considering and representing that as the conversation moves forward.
  • Multitasking – With many participants in a therapy session, who all may bring different points and concerns which all need to be addressed, therapists in this area need to be able to take note of these and ensure that the conversation is guided around all relevant points before concluding.
  • Critical thinking – A marriage or family therapist needs to be able to fully understand a problem as it is outlined by multiple people, and consider many different potential solutions, possibly seeing the problem from a completely new angle.
  • Perceptiveness – In a session with multiple participants, a therapist needs to actively listen to the person talking but they also need to be able to read the reactions of the others who are listening. This allows them to question around certain reactions and may offer a new perspective to a problem that a member of the session wouldn’t have volunteered. It also lets them get a sense of the general consensus of the group in reaction to the points being raised which helps them move the conversation on more productively.
  • Good judgement – Often therapists in these fields have to make a judgement based on contradicting thoughts or beliefs and stories being told by those in the session. They have to be able to judge for themselves the most productive strategy to suggest. This involves being able to effectively consider the costs and benefits of each possibility.

Where Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Work?

Marriage and family therapists work in a range of settings including private practice, mental health facilities, hospitals, or social worker centers. Non-profit, public, and private facilities provide work environments for certified therapists.

Marriage and family therapists in the private sector may own their company, which also requires managerial, administration, and marketing work.

Individuals working within an organization or company will focus on helping patients as well as maintaining private records. There are local, state, and federal laws that apply to records and non-disclosure, which have to be maintained by the therapist.

What are the Opportunities for Advancement?

Marriage and family therapists working in hospitals, clinics, private practices, social work centers, and non-profit agencies may advance into supervisory, managerial, or administration positions. It is also possible to own their practice as a means of advancement.

What is the Salary for a Marriage and Family Therapist?

Ziprecruiter shows a 2023 average salary of $85,006 per year. Salary is going to depend on the state, level of experience, and work placement. Starting salaries may be nearer to the national average wage of approximately $47,000. Individuals in the top salary bracket earn over $160,000 per year.

Where Do Marriage and Family Therapists Make the Most Money?

Marriage and Family Therapists in Nebraska, Texas and California earn the highest average annual salary of $115,257, $109,689 and $107,346 respectively. While MFTs working in Michigan, Arkansas and New York on average earn $104,002, $103,403 and $103,294 respectively.

What is the Job Outlook for Marriage and Family Therapists?

Job outlook for a ten year period, 2022 to 2032, is 14%. This is much faster than average. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states the average is 11% for most occupations. It is projected that 9,100 jobs will be available in the next ten years.

Related Reading

Further Reading

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