If you’re interested in a career in the helping professions, you might think about specializing in marriage and family therapy.
This is a career with many upsides, few downsides, and gives you the opportunity to help couples and families overcome significant obstacles. The pay can be excellent, the job outlook is great, and you can be a marriage and family therapist virtually anywhere in the world.
In this guide, learn what it takes to become a marriage and family therapist (MFT), explore the pros and cons of this career, and discover the skills required for this job - and much more!
What is a Marriage and Family Therapist?
As the job title indicates, marriage and family therapists work specifically with couples and families to repair relationships, improve communication, and generally help manage problems of family life. They provide services that treat each member of the family and focus on building stronger relationships within the family unit.
Usually, marriage and family therapists work in private practice and provide counseling services that are similar to what psychologists and counselors provide to their clients.
For example, marriage and family therapists might work with a married couple to help them identify their emotions and underlying feelings, and teach them how to effectively communicate those feelings to one another.
While many therapists in this field use solution-focused techniques, they might also use rational-emotive therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or Gestalt techniques to help facilitate change.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Marriage and Family Therapist?
Like any career, being a marriage and family therapist comes with some pros and cons. On the positive side, you get to help people in need, and play a role in bringing about positive changes in the lives of others.
At the same time, marriage and family therapists can face intense stress and experience extreme levels of worry about their clients. Sometimes, it’s hard to leave work at work, which might result in high stress levels, lack of sleep, and other negative effects.
Let’s have a look at some of the best and worst aspects of being a marriage and family therapist.
Pro No. 1 - You Have a Hand in Making a Positive Change
As noted above, one of the best aspects of a career in this field is that you have the ability to effect positive change in the lives of your clients. Using the skills you develop in your graduate training program, you can help clients work through separation and divorce, child-parent issues, mental health problems, and many other difficulties.
The work you do with couples can help keep families together, facilitate improved understanding between family members, and help family members communicate more effectively, too.
Pro No. 2 - Marriage and Family Therapists are in Demand
As long as there are couples and families, the services of marriage and family therapists will be in demand. No couple or family is immune to problems they can’t solve on their own. As an expert in counseling and therapeutic techniques, you’re able to provide real solutions to people that might have thought their problem was hopelessly unresolvable.
This is part of the reason why marriage and family therapists are in such high demand. We’ll discuss the job outlook for this field in greater detail later on in this guide.
Pro No. 3 - You Can Work For Yourself
Many marriage and family therapists work for counseling centers, non-profit agencies, and even government institutions. But, many others work for themselves in private practice.
If you start a practice of your own, you’ll have the freedom to set your hours, your fee schedule, and choose what type of clients you want to work with. This offers a lot of freedom for you to approach your work in a way that is most beneficial to you and your clients.
Pro No. 4 - There are Many Different Job Opportunities
Becoming a marriage and family therapist doesn’t mean you have to work in a counseling setting. Many marriage and family therapists put their unique knowledge and skills to practice in other venues.
For example, you might work for a number of years in the field, then transition to an administrative position at a counseling center. Likewise, you might build your skills as a therapist for a few years, then make the move toward being a college professor in marriage and family therapy.
Pro No. 5 - The Schedule Can Be Wonderful
In most cases, marriage and family therapists don’t work nights, weekends, or holidays. Sure, there are some exceptions (e.g., being on call to address emergency mental health situations, working evenings to accommodate clients’ schedules), but by and large, you can expect to work a typical 8-5 job as a marriage and family therapist.
With most nights, weekends, and holidays free, you can take part in activities that help rejuvenate and recharge you. Having a steady schedule helps make your work life more predictable and consistent, but it also helps you plan for some much-needed “me time” when you can release the stress of work.
Pro No. 6 - You Can Specialize
Marriage and family therapists can work with general populations - like couples and families. But they can also specialize and offer services to niche client bases. For example, you might specialize in working with families with children, families that include non-biological children, or blended families. You might also specialize in working with families that include older generations within the same household.
Pro No. 7 - Remote Work is Possible
The rise of telehealth services in recent years has been a boon for couples and families in rural areas that can benefit from therapy. But telehealth isn’t just an advantage for clients - it’s an advantage for therapists as well.
If you work remotely, you can work from anywhere in the world, so long as you have reliable internet. This opens up possibilities for living and working abroad and working as you travel around the globe.
Additionally, remote work enables therapists to work from home so they can attend to a newborn, care for a parent, and so forth. It’s a more flexible way to work that still offers many of the benefits of traditional in-person therapy sessions.
Pro No. 8 - High Job Satisfaction
Another benefit of working as a marriage and family therapist is that there is generally high job satisfaction in this field. While there are many stressors involved in being a therapist, the benefits often outweigh the negatives. Helping others overcome obstacles in their lives can be very fulfilling, as can seeing the progress your clients make as you work with them over a period of days, weeks, or months.
Pro No. 9 - Your Skills are Transferable
The training you receive in marriage and family therapy is transferable to other populations. For example, you’ll take courses in child development and learn how to work with children to overcome stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.
Likewise, the counseling skills you learn to help couples can be applied to family therapy, group therapy, and even individual therapy sessions. This enables you to work with a wide range of people and provide assistance to clients with varying needs.
Pro No. 10 - The Help You Provide Extends Beyond Your Clients
Your work with your clients can obviously have a profound, positive impact on their lives. But, the positive effects don’t stop there. For example, the skills you help your clients build in terms of communication and relationship building can help them enhance their relationships with friends, coworkers, neighbors, and other community members.
It’s like a ripple effect - you and your clients work together to forge a path toward improved well-being. As they achieve their goal of better mental health, they are able to function better in other aspects of their lives, improving their home life, work life, and ties to the community.
Con No. 1 - This is Stressful Work
There are many careers that are more stressful than being a marriage and family therapist. But, just the same, this is stressful work that can cause you to lose sleep, obsess over a client's progress (or lack thereof), and give you nightmares.
As a therapist, you’ll learn some wonderful things about your clients. You’ll also be privy to their deepest, darkest secrets. You’ll likely see many divorces, work with clients that have been abused, and see parents that have no excuse having children. All of that heavy lifting can take an emotional toll on you.
Con No. 2 - You Need an Advanced Degree
Marriage and family therapists have to spend a long time in school to get the proper training and credentials. At the least, you’ll be in school for six to seven years to complete your undergraduate and graduate studies. This isn’t just a big investment of time, either.
College is very expensive, and graduate school is even more expensive. If you want to pursue this career, you’ll need to accept the fact that it might take more than one hundred thousand dollars to get the requisite education.
Con No. 3 - There are Business Obligations to Attend To
Being a marriage and family therapist isn’t just sitting in your office talking to your clients. There will be a lot of paperwork, communications with insurance companies, working with other therapists, and so forth.
You’ll need to take copious notes, bill your clients for your services, and if you’re in private practice, you’ll also need to manage any employees. This part of being a therapist is often forgotten, but it’s crucial to your success in the counseling business.
Con No. 4 - Some Clients Make the Work Extra Difficult
Not all of your clients will be a joy to work with. Some will be dragged in by their spouse or kids. Others will be mandated by the court to participate. Still others simply won’t think that therapy is useful or worth their time. These types of clients require your empathy and compassion, but doing so can be extraordinarily difficult when the client’s attitude is so poor.
Why Marriage and Family Therapists are Important?
Marriage and family therapists are important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they provide specific, solution-focused treatments for couples and families. In other words, marriage and family therapy is designed to be both therapeutic and educational. Clients that seek this type of therapy will gain demonstrable skills that can be used to improve their lives.
Aside from this very important service, marriage and family therapists serve as experts on matters of interpersonal relationships, family dynamics, marriage and relationships, and communication. With expertise in these and many other fields, marriage and family therapists are an excellent resource for couples and families of all kinds.
Additionally, marriage and family therapists can address a wide range of issues in their sessions with clients. This includes improving communication, addressing infidelity, and building trust between couples and family members.
Marriage and family therapy works, too. According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), nearly 90 percent of marriage and family therapy clients have an improvement in their emotional health once their treatment is finished.
Furthermore, three-fourths of couples in therapy report having an improved relationship after seeking counseling. Two-thirds of marriage and family clients even report having better physical health after therapy.
So, marriage and family therapists offer real solutions and effective treatments that can facilitate positive change in their clients’ lives. These services are critical for improving the daily and long-term functioning of couples and families.
Is Being a Marriage and Family Therapist Stressful?
While being a marriage and family therapist can be a very rewarding career, it can also be extremely stressful. The very nature of the job is stressful - you’re responsible for helping diagnose and treat everything from spousal abuse to schizophrenia. Likewise, you work with multiple clients, each of whom has a very different worldview about the same set of family issues. It can be stressful to manage all the different input you get from members of the same family.
It can be difficult for therapists not to internalize the struggles of their clients, too. Even when the workday is done, you might find lingering thoughts or concerns about a couple or family that you’re working with. This can quite easily lead to work-related anxiety and the development of stress.
And when your best efforts don’t seem to have the positive effect you desire, things can get really stressful. You might feel like a failure. You might also overwork yourself trying to figure out another solution that might work.
How Much Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Make?
As of May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), marriage and family therapists earn a median annual salary of $59,660, or $28.69 per hour. The median salary is the midpoint, so half of marriage and family therapists earn less than that while the other half earn more.
More specifically, the pay range for this career extends from a low of around $37,050 ($17.81 per hour) to a potential income that can exceed $96,000 per year, or $46.41 per hour.
Marriage and family therapists that work for state government agencies have the highest average wages at $77,960 (or $37.48 per hour). Outpatient care centers ($62,830; $30.21 per hour) and offices of health practitioners ($59,760; $28.73 per hour) are the other top-paying industries.
You can ensure higher wages by pursuing advanced education (e.g., a doctorate) or by specializing. For example, you might work exclusively with families with children that have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. As another example, you might work exclusively with newlyweds or new parents.
By specializing, you can often charge more for your services because you have additional training and expertise in a certain field. Likewise, working in private practice - where you control how much you charge clients - often results in a higher yearly income.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist?
The first step in becoming a marriage and family therapist is to complete your undergraduate studies, if you haven’t done so already.
Majoring in psychology, human services, or a related field is a great option, as it will prepare you for advanced studies in counseling, psychology, and human relations in graduate school.
If you attend college full-time, you can complete an undergraduate degree in about four years. If you study part-time, it might take 5-7 years to finish your degree.
Once you have a degree from an accredited school, you can apply to graduate programs for marriage and family therapy. If your undergraduate degree is in one of the fields (or a closely related field) discussed above, you should be able to begin your graduate studies upon your acceptance and enrollment.
However, if your undergraduate degree is in a different field, say, criminal justice, you might need to complete some basic prerequisite courses first.
For example, an undergraduate program in psychology includes coursework in the history of psychology, different fields of psychology (e.g., developmental psychology and the psychology of learning), and psychological statistics. It’s unlikely that any of these courses are required for a degree in criminal justice, so you might need to take these classes prior to your enrollment in graduate school.
Assuming you’ve met the requirements for graduate school admission, you likely have 2-3 years of full-time study to complete the marriage and family therapy master’s degree. If you need to complete prerequisites, you might need an extra semester or year to finish the degree.
Since many marriage and family therapists work with a master’s degree, this means you’d need at a minimum six years to complete your training.
What Courses Do You Learn During a Marriage and Family Therapist Program?
A master’s degree program in marriage and family therapy can be anywhere from 48 to 60 credit hours. Over the course of the program, you’ll take some general counseling courses as well as content-specific courses on topics like family systems, psychopharmacology, and child development.
Below is a list of seven common courses you are likely to take in a marriage and family therapy graduate program:
- Marriage and Family Therapy Assessments - This course introduces you to a wide range of assessments that can be used in a marriage and family therapy setting. This might include standardized tests, non-standardized tests, structured interviews, and dual diagnosis procedures. Sometimes, marriage and family therapists even administer career inventories, in addition to intelligence tests and personality tests.
- Relationship Therapy - This marriage and family course focuses on how we develop relationships. This includes an examination of how we relate to others in romantic and non-romantic relationships. Typically, courses in this field look at cultural influences on relationships, as well as the effect that generational differences have on relationship development. You’ll explore these facets of relationship development through the lens of couple and family relationships. You’ll also study the individual and how individual functioning influences the health of a couple or family relationship.
- Family Systems - Marriage and family therapy students also take courses that focus on family systems. Specifically, courses on this topic look at the behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and structural constructs that make up the family unit. Various family therapy models are presented, with students engaging in practicing the skills needed to provide competent therapeutic service within each model. This course often delves into major causes of family dysfunction, including mental illness, substance use and abuse, loss, and trauma.
- Career Counseling - Just like it sounds, career counseling courses are all about developing the skills needed to counsel clients through a career change. You’ll learn about career development theories, career counseling techniques, and develop an understanding of how work and mental health are related. These courses often discuss career assessments, multiculturalism, and career information systems, too.
- Gender Issues - Gender issues courses cover topics related to sexuality, social psychology, and how gender influences the development of self-concept. You’ll also study the interrelationship between gender and social interaction. Courses in gender issues usually explore psychological assessments, interventions, and counseling techniques. Likewise, you’ll learn how power, privilege and gender are related.
- Counseling Methods - This course explores basic counseling skills while also giving you the chance to put what you learn into practice. You’ll identify essential skills that form the basis of the counseling relationship, and learn how to apply those skills in a variety of situations with clients from diverse backgrounds.
- Child and Adolescent Development - Since marriage and family therapists work with families, it’s important to have an understanding of child development. This course gives you a broad view of developmental theories, counseling techniques that are effective with children, and legal issues of which to be aware when working with children and adolescents.
How Many Clinical Hours are Needed for a Marriage and Family Therapist?
The precise number of clinical hours varies from one state to the next. However, you can expect to spend at least 1,000 hours in clinical training before you are fully licensed.
For example, in the state of Wyoming, marriage and family therapists must complete a total of 3,000 clinical hours, including 1,200 hours that provide direct client contact. Of those 1,200 hours, 500 must be with couples and families.
By contrast, the state of Connecticut requires just 1,000 of direct client contact.
The duration of the clinical supervision period also varies. Some states require just one year of supervised work. Others require two years.
It should be noted that in addition to required clinical hours, prospective marriage and family therapists must also pass a national board examination.
You can consult with the AAMFT to determine the precise licensure requirements in your state. AAMFT provides licensure data for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Canadian provinces as well.
What Skills are Needed to Be a Marriage and Family Therapist?
As a marriage and family therapist, there are many professional skills you need to develop. There are also many soft skills that are beneficial for you in practice.
Below is a partial list of some of the most important skills you need to have to be successful in this field.
- Understanding of counseling techniques - Your coursework in graduate school will help you develop the skills needed to identify major issues in your clients’ lives, develop a course of treatment to address those issues, and develop a toolkit of interventions you can draw on to provide treatment. Counseling techniques are easy to master in theory, but it requires much practice to be able to counsel clients effectively. That’s why there’s an internship component in marriage and family graduate programs - to give you the chance to grow in your confidence as a counselor.
- Ethical practice - Another hard skill that marriage and family therapists must master is the ability to practice ethically. This goes well beyond maintaining confidentiality. Instead, ethical practice involves a host of behaviors and skills. It’s your duty to report child abuse, for example. It’s your obligation to provide research-based treatments to your clients as well. Another part of ethical practice is maintaining your understanding of marriage and family therapy by taking continuing education courses, seeking certifications, and the like.
- Strong empathy skills - Effective counselors and therapists are adept at putting themselves in others’ shoes. You should be able to see the world from your clients’ perspective and identify with the emotions they feel, even if your client isn’t able to clearly articulate what their experience currently is. Likewise, you should be compassionate, understanding, and supportive of your clients’ experiences.
- Excellent communication skills - While most marriage and family therapists practice solution-focused therapy, which is very direct and goal-oriented, you still need to possess the ability to communicate effectively. Marriage and family therapists should have excellent interpersonal communication skills, be effective listeners, and have a knack for making people feel comfortable.
- Patience - Not all clients will progress as quickly as you’d like. In fact, you’ll have some clients that make very little progress over a prolonged period of time. What’s important is that you have the capacity for patience and allow your clients the time they need to work through their problems. This may or may not occur on the timeline you desire!
- Ability to set boundaries - It’s necessary to remember that your relationships with your clients should remain strictly professional. While you might have a desire to go above and beyond to help a client, doing so might put you at risk of breaking the boundaries of a professional relationship. Your clients will share many highly intimate details about their lives with you. You’ll process many heavy emotions with them as well. This will bring you closer together, to be sure, but that relationship must remain professional at all times.
- Understanding of relevant laws - Marriage and family therapists are required to be licensed by the state in which they live. As such, there are specific guidelines, laws, and regulations that govern marriage and family therapy practice. It’s incumbent on you to know the relevant laws, how they apply to you, and what you should do if there’s any question about a possible ethics violation by you or a colleague.
What is the Job Outlook for Marriage and Family Therapists?
The field of marriage and family therapy has enjoyed long-lasting job growth, and that’s not expected to change anytime soon. In fact, the BLS estimates that growth in marriage and family therapy will continue at a 16 percent rate through 2030. This is a much faster rate of job growth than the average.
There are several reasons why job growth has been so strong in this field.
First, there is a greater openness to seeking therapy, so there are more clients seeking treatment than ever before for marriage and family therapists.
Second, as integrated care becomes more popular, the services of marriage and family therapists are in greater demand. So, for example, a family that’s struggling to stay together due to a child’s substance abuse problem would attend marriage and family therapy as well as substance abuse therapy.
Other interventions would likely be part of the treatment plan as well. The thinking is that a team-based approach to family problems often leads to the most positive outcomes.
A third factor in the growth of jobs in this field is simply the number of current marriage and family therapists that are leaving work. Many are retiring while others are moving into new job roles. Those positions need to be filled, thus the steady demand for new marriage and family therapists.