Marriage & Family Therapist Degree and Career Guide

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Marriage & Family Therapy Job Description: What You’ll Do

Learn about the many roles of a marriage and family therapist.

couple holding hands during marriage ceremony

You may have heard the phrase, “No man is an island.” That especially rings true when families face trouble. Sometimes even the strongest family unit may need support and guidance in dealing with unexpected circumstances such as illness, death or unemployment. Other times, they may require that same support from an impartial observer in order to manage personal conflicts.

Those in romantic relationships and marriages may seek guidance through all stages of their relationship, from dating to engagement to the many years of building a life together. They may need help breaking patterns and forming more positive habits.

K. Alexandra Onno, who holds a master’s degree and is an LMHC with a successful private practice in marriage and family counseling, says it’s crucial to have a “curiosity about people as individuals and how they act in relationships.” She says what drew her to the field was her “interest in the individual psyche in context of the relationship.”

“In my work in marriage counseling, I enjoy the integrity, the intimacy, and the challenge of authentic encounters. Conscious relationships are a crucible for transformation. I really love helping couples choose intimacy and teaching them that what they have is good.”

Your strong sense of compassion and commitment to helping people are the most necessary qualities for a successful career as a marriage and family therapist. You’ll help clients to make informed and healthy decisions about their relationships, and build promising futures together.

What does a marriage and family therapist do?

Marriage and family therapists offer guidance to couples, families and groups who are dealing with issues that affect their mental health and well-being. Many therapists approach their work holistically, using a “wellness” model (as opposed to an “illness” one) which highlights and encourages client’s strengths.

Some types of issues that marriage and family therapists treat include:

  • Child and adolescent behavioral problems
  • Grieving
  • Depression and anxiety
  • LGBTQ issues
  • Domestic violence
  • Infertility
  • Marital conflicts
  • Substance abuse

On the job, marriage and family therapists:

  • Observe how people interact within units
  • Evaluate and resolve relationship problems
  • Diagnose and treat psychological disorders within a family context
  • Guide clients through transitional crises such as divorce or death
  • Highlight problematic relational or behavioral patterns
  • Help replace dysfunctional behaviors with healthy alternatives
  • Take a holistic (mind-body) approach to wellness

What education or certification will I need to become a marriage and family therapist?

Typically, earning an undergraduate degree in counseling, psychology, sociology or social work is the first step in becoming a marriage and family therapist. Then, you’ll earn a master’s degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy.

You can pursue the necessary master’s degree with an undergraduate degree in another field. Your master’s will usually take one to two years to earn. Learn more about what you’ll study.

Most states require that marriage and family therapists complete two years of post-graduate supervised work, totaling between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of clinical experience. In addition, counselors must pass a state-recognized exam and complete annual continuing education courses. The learning is never done—and your hard work will be rewarded with greater skills and understanding.

Licensing and certification guidelines for psychologists vary by state; be sure to check the guidelines for the region in which you plan to study.

Additionally, Onno advises that practitioners get experience through exposure, in-the-room practice, and superb supervision. “The thing I worry about is people practicing without enough supervision. We need the input of our peers. This is not work to do in isolation.”

“Talk to other marriage counselors and practitioners,” she says. “Attend introductory presentations for counseling schools. Talk to people in the trenches. Get experience before jumping in. Volunteer.”

What career paths can I take in marriage and family therapy?

As a marriage and family therapist, you can work in social service agencies, family services, outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, hospitals, government, schools and even your own private practice. You can choose to work with a specific population, such as with teenagers, the incarcerated, families and the elderly. A parallel career path is mental health counseling, in which you can work with individuals in addition to groups, on many of the same issues.

If you’d like to seek more education after earning your master’s and working in the field of marriage and family therapy, you can pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology or one of its many specializations. This will require a time commitment of an additional five to seven years, and will broaden your employment opportunities to include academic research, consulting and more.

Helping Yourself as You Help Others

Like all areas of psychology and counseling, it’s critical to set strong boundaries and guidelines for your patients. After several years of dealing with difficult cases, Onno says she’s moved away from the weight of that sort of work. “I limit the hours I deal with traumatic cases and have moved away from crisis work,” adding, “Now I work with people who are genuinely interested in healing and recovery. One of the ways I take care of myself is that I have really high standards for clients—if they are not interested in change, I send them away.”

If you’re interested in helping others, but unsure if pursuing marriage and family therapy is for you, other careers that focus on human services include mental health counseling, social work, specialized care, and nursing.

Learn about Pay & Job Projections for marriage and family therapists.