How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

So, you've decided that you want to become a marriage and family therapist. Becoming a marriage and family therapist (MFT) can be a fulfilling and rewarding career, but it does require a considerable amount of education, training, and on-the-job experience.

Before getting started on your new career, it's important that you understand where you stand when it comes to regular and online therapy, as well as where you need to go. That way there won't be any surprises or bumps in the road as you work towards your goal. Here's what you need to know about becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist.

What Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Do? Why Is It Important?

Marriage and Family Therapists (also referred to as MFTs) help their clients work through issues in their relationships. When therapists work with individuals, families, and couples, they are helping them overcome mental health issues and interpersonal problems that may be affecting their ability to function as healthy and productive individuals.

They also provide an invaluable service by helping clients develop strategies for managing stress and relieving tension. And when therapists work with families, couples, or marriages, they can help members communicate more effectively, resolve conflicts amicably, solve how to save a marriage, or enjoy each other's company more fully. The end result is a society of healthier individuals and families—the kind that is better able to survive conflict and thrive in harmony.

Steps to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

If you're considering how to become a therapist or more specifically an MFT, it's essential to think through the pros and cons of all the different steps involved in pursuing this career, including the family therapy education, licensing, and skills required. To help guide you toward making an informed decision about your future career path, here are the four steps you must take to become a Marriage and Family Therapist.

1.   Assess Your Skills

Before diving in headfirst, it's important to evaluate your personality and skill set. This will help you further understand if you should learn how to start a group therapy practice, learn whether to be a psychologist vs therapist, or if marriage family therapy is a good career choice for you. Most people who work as a licensed professional counselor are interested in helping others and are empathetic, compassionate, observant, and naturally good listeners. Beyond that you need to have an open mind; since all people are unique, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for therapy.

Additional skills you'll use as a therapist include

  • Asking pointed questions to get an insightful response

  • The ability to listen well and show empathy when it's appropriate

  • Speaking with clarity and compassion

  • The ability to not pass judgment on anything or anyone (even if it might seem justified)

Maintaining professionalism is also key; therapists often hear stories that make them uncomfortable so maintaining your composure is important. Being organized and detail-oriented are also helpful traits because both of those skills are required for any successful career.

2.   Meet the Educational Requirements

Educational requirements for marriage and family therapists vary by state but in general, you must earn a master's degree in marriage and family therapy from an accredited institution to become a licensed professional counselor or therapist. Of course, before you start working on your master's degree, you have to complete your bachelor's degree first.

The most common bachelor's degrees that potential therapists earn are in Psychology or Sociology. If you've already completed a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field, don't worry; many universities will still admit you to a master's program in marriage and family therapy without a psychology or sociology degree. Of course, it will certainly help if you took at least a few related classes as an undergrad, but as long as you have some related experience, whether through your education or work, you still have a shot of getting into the master's program.

The reason for this leniency is because the bulk of what you need to know to be a Marriage and Family Therapist will be covered as you study for your master's degree. For example, you'll learn:

  • Psychological theory

  • Counseling theory

  • Developmental science

  • Clinical interventions and applications

  • Theories of marriage and family therapy

  • Family systems

  • Couples therapy

  • Cross-cultural communication in counseling

  • Laws and ethics of counseling

  • Diagnostic classification systems

  • Research methods and data analysis

  • How to work with specific populations such as children and adolescents, couples, elderly, families, LGBTQ, and victims of domestic violence

  • Approaches for specific issues such as mood and anxiety disorders, chemical dependency, eating disorders, grief and trauma, human sexuality, and personality disorders

The MFT—or Master's in Family Therapy—is the degree that most aspiring Marriage and Family Therapists earn. This marriage and family therapist degree can also be referred to by various other names, depending on the university offering the family therapy program. For example, you might see it called a Master's of Marriage and Family Therapy, a Master of Science in Marriage and Family Counseling, or an Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling. While it is possible to become a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist after earning either a master's in Psychology or Social Work, these aren't the most popular options.

3.   Complete Your Clinical Experience

You'll need at least two years of supervised clinical practice to become certified as a Marriage and Family Therapist. This can be done in community settings, such as an outpatient counseling center or hospital, but it may also be gained through work experience with individual families (such as home visitation).

During your supervised experience at clinical practice, your supervisor will make sure you have what it takes to help patients dealing with mental health issues. They will track your progress over time, evaluate your skillset, and ultimately decide whether you have what it takes to complete additional training.

4.   Pass the Licensing Exam

The next step to becoming a marriage and family therapist is passing your state's licensing exam. While some states have their own unique exam requirements, many of them rely on a national exam administered by The Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB).

This exam is a computer-based assessment that includes 180 multiple-choice questions. Exam questions focus on your ability to support clients in dealing with common relationship problems, such as communication and conflict resolution. You may also be asked about diagnosing mental health disorders, as well as your knowledge of family systems theory. Test takers are given four hours to complete the exam and can apply to retake it if they fail to pass the exam on their first try.   

Next Steps: What Happens After You Become a Marriage and Family Therapist?

Once you have completed all the requirements and become a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, there’s still a bit of work to do, including finding a job and continuing your family therapy education.

Find a Job

There are two primary places where marriage and family therapists work: in private practice or with an organization like a hospital, mental health agency, or community mental health center. While it could be helpful to gain experience by working in an organization, many recent graduates prefer to start their own MFT program.

There are many benefits associated with having your own MFT program including being your own boss, structuring your business to meet your lifestyle needs, and helping people on your own terms. The greatest challenge, however, is finding enough clients to fill your roster, especially when you're first starting out.

For many therapists, it can be difficult to grow their practice. Most therapists work out of their homes or in shared office space, so they have to get creative in order to acquire new clients. Thankfully, therapists have discovered some effective methods of outreach, such as networking with other counseling professionals, getting listed in directories, and placing ads. They're also started using technology to help them find clients by working with companies like Advekit. Advekit is a service that matches potential patients with therapists in their area. This proves to be beneficial for both the client and the therapist; the client gets the help they need from a qualified professional while the therapist grows their business.

Keep Learning

In most states, your license to practice therapy can only be renewed if you accumulate continuing education credits through state-approved workshops, courses, and training programs. Currently, there are no specific continuing education requirements for marriage and family therapists on the national level; these credit requirements vary from state to state. Check with your state's board of psychology to see what their regulations are and be prepared to continue learning throughout your career.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist

To help further your understanding of marriage and family therapy, here are answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions regarding this career.

What's the Job Outlook for Marriage and Family Therapists?

As of 2020, there were 73,200 marriage and family therapists employed in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure is projected to grow 16 percent by 2030, equaling roughly 8,500 open jobs each year. This growth rate far exceeds average job growth, which means that many more jobs will be available than there are students graduating from a family therapy program.

How Much Do Marriage and Family Therapists Earn?

If you have ever wondered how much is marriage counseling or how much does a marriage and family therapist earn, the average salary for MFT therapists is $51,340. Though most therapists work in health care settings, they are also employed by schools, correctional facilities, and other organizations. 15% of all Marriage and Family Therapists are self-employed in their own private practice. Though owning your own business does come with some risk, the rewards are typically worth it; self-employed therapists earn about 44 percent more than those who work as salaried employees.

Are There Specializations Within the Field of Marriage and Family Therapy?

Yes, there are many specialty areas within marriage or family therapy. For example, you might consider becoming an AODA (alcohol & other drugs) counselor, which would mean that you would work primarily with people who are going through or recovering from substance abuse problems. Alternatively, you could specialize in helping people who struggle with trauma, infidelity, co-parenting, grief, violence, chronic health issues, or life transitions. There are many specialties to choose from!

Marriage and Family Therapy: A Rewarding Career with Extensive Requirements

Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist may not be easy, but it's well worth the effort. It's a rewarding career that allows you to help people overcome their deepest emotional wounds and build stronger relationships. In order to practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist in any state, you must meet specific educational and licensing requirements including earning a master's degree in marriage or family therapy, completing clinical experience, and passing the licensing examination. Once you do, you'll be able to provide much-needed help to individuals, couples, families, children, and adolescents.