Family dynamics can be challenging to navigate. Conflict with a spouse, child, parent, or sibling can lead to tension. Additionally, external struggles (such as job loss or the death of a close friend) can impact different family members in varied ways. To help process these challenges in healthy and constructive ways, couples or families may seek the guidance of a therapist. A licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) is someone who specializes in the complex inner workings of the family unit.
There are a number of specific instances in which the perspective of a marriage and family therapist can be invaluable.
- When discord arises between spouses, whether due to an extramarital affair or simply a lapse in communication
- When parents struggle to address behavioral issues with a child, whether at home or at school
- Following the loss of a loved one, family members need someone to guide them through the grieving process
- When adult children seek wisdom on the best way to care for their elderly parents
A marriage and family therapist differs from a more traditional therapist. A traditional therapist tends to focus on individuals and works with them through processes of self-discovery. A marriage and family therapist, meanwhile, may address the mental and emotional well-being of an individual, but the focus is more on the couple or the family as a whole. These therapists seek to provide healthy and positive structures for communication and advise family members on how they can flourish together.
Individuals who are drawn to the relational dynamics of families may wish to learn more about becoming a marriage and family therapist. This article will explore the basic job description, the educational and licensing requirements, anticipated salary, job outlook, and more.
A sound strategy for embarking on the path to a career as a marriage and family therapist is to pursue an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Social Work program.
What Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Do?
Let’s consider some of the basic duties and responsibilities associated with the role. More specifically, what does a marriage and family therapist do?
Duties of a Marriage and Family Therapist
Therapists in this line of work help individuals and families develop strategies to cope with issues that arise within the marriage or family dynamic.
A marriage and family therapist may help clients work through a wide range of issues, such as the following:
- Conflict between spouses
- Conflict between parents and children
- Sexual dysfunction
- Infertility or miscarriage
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Stress or anxiety
- Eating disorders
- Eldercare issues, such as coping with a parent’s dementia
- A child’s behavioral issues, such as acting out at school
To help their clients cope with these issues in a healthy and positive way, marriage and family therapists may apply any number of approaches and methods.
- Making observations about how spouses or family members interact with one another, specifically noting healthy and unhealthy dynamics and communication patterns
- Evaluating relationship problems and listening to all sides of the story to help make an informed analysis
- Diagnosing any psychological issues or mental health problems that exist within the family and making treatment recommendations (this may involve referring a family member to a psychiatrist or other mental health specialist)
- Guiding clients through times of transition, whether that’s the dissolution of a marriage or the loss of a loved one
- Highlighting any dangerous or problematic behavioral patterns that exist within the family, and suggesting ways to replace those problematic behaviors with healthy alternatives
- Advocating for a holistic view of wellness that takes into account not just emotional well-being but physical health and safety
Techniques of a Marriage and Family Therapist
Successful therapists will be well versed in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, which can be helpful in formulating the strategies to help family members work through their issues.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is described by the American Psychological Association as “a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol, and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness.” It is best understood as an effort to change an individual’s thinking patterns, and in doing so change how they treat themselves and the people around them.
There are several cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that marriage and family therapists might employ.
This is a method in which the therapist helps a client identify negative thought patterns and “reframe” those thoughts in a more positive way. For example, a husband might find himself thinking, “I’m worthless and my wife doesn’t love me.” A therapist might offer a careful reframing: “My wife is disappointed in my behavior, but she still loves me and wants me to be the best person I can be.”
Also called tracking, this is a method in which the therapist challenges a client to better understand their own thought processes. The therapist might ask the client to produce evidence that supports some of their assumptions, or simply think more deeply about why they view the world the way they do. In the case of the man who thinks his wife doesn’t love him, the therapist might use Socratic questioning to prompt guided discovery: “Why do you think she doesn’t love you?” “What are some other possible explanations for her behavior?” “Do you love her?”
Journaling and Thought Records
Therapists often encourage their clients to keep journals. This can be a powerful way for people to discover for themselves some thought patterns or habits they didn’t realize they had. This tactic is commonly used when helping people who are battling addiction or eating disorders. By keeping a journal throughout the day, individuals can gain a better understanding of what “triggers” them or how they respond to external stressors.
A therapist may also guide clients through different strategies for reducing stress or for positively channeling their uncertainty. Common examples include guided breathing exercises, imagery, and muscle relaxation. For a client who is struggling with stress or depression, a therapist might recommend some specific breathing patterns, then lead the client through guided imagery involving a calming setting or location.
How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist
Individuals interested in this kind of work should consider what it takes to become a marriage and family therapist.
The first step toward becoming a marriage and family therapist is pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology, family studies, or a related field. These degree programs provide exposure to some of the foundational concepts that are invaluable in further psychological study and practice.
Following the completion of an undergraduate degree, it’s also important to seek an advanced degree. This might include a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, counseling, social work, or a related field.
It is recommended that after an advanced degree, job candidates gain some clinical practice experience. In most states, this means working as a therapist under the guidance and oversight of a more seasoned, licensed therapist. The next step involves sitting for state licensure. (We’ll provide more details on this in a subsequent section.)
Advanced education is important for a number of reasons. Not only does it offer preparation for licensure exams, it also gives students a chance to hone important skills that are central to the practice of marriage and family therapy.
Success as a therapist requires the ability to actively listen to clients and their stories — not to be formulating a response, but to really hear what clients are saying.
Sometimes the work of a therapist involves diagnosing a mental health condition, or simply adjudicating cause-and-effect relationships within a family dynamic. Analytical skills are essential to applying these competencies.
Therapists require some level of trust from their clients; it’s important that they are able to communicate in a clear, trustworthy, and effective way.
A family therapist must be able to perceive family roles, even when they are not spoken aloud. For example, in a particular family one person may be domineering while another tends to be the peacemaker. Family members may not have the self-awareness to identify these roles, leaving it up to the therapist to recognize them.
Conflict Resolution Skills
Family conflict often arises during therapy sessions. A qualified therapist will be able to guide the family toward healthy and equitable resolutions, and the tools to address future conflicts.
While the therapist’s role is not primarily a prescriptive one, there may be occasions where it falls to the therapist to instruct clients on different tools, strategies, or processes they can use to further work through issues at home. Again, clear communication is the key.
Marriage and Family Therapist Licensing Requirements
Practicing as a marriage and family therapist requires a license. Licensure is granted by state boards, and as such the specific requirements vary from one state to the next. The best approach is to contact a state-specific licensing board about becoming licensed in that state or transferring licensure from one state to another.
In general, marriage and family therapist licensing requirements encompass education and examination.
Again, precise requirements vary by state, but it’s generally expected that those who are seeking licensure have an advanced degree. Some states require this degree to be in marriage and family therapy, while others accept comparable degrees, including a master’s of social work (MSW).
Obtaining a license also requires candidates to achieve a certain number of hours in clinical practice, working under the supervision of a licensed marriage and family therapist. The specific number of required hours varies by state, but usually falls somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000.
Taking the Exam
Finally, those who seek a marriage and family therapist license will need to sit for an examination.
The Association of Marital and Family Regulatory Boards administers a national examination. In most states, passing this exam is a requirement for licensure. Again, reach out to state-specific boards to confirm local details, including how to enroll in an exam and how to prepare for the test. Practice exams and study materials are commonly available online.
Those who take the exam will learn their score within a matter of six weeks or so. Those who do not pass are welcome to take the exam again but will need to first coordinate with their local licensing board. In some states, therapists are required to complete continuing education hours to maintain their license. This is determined by state-specific licensing boards, and specific requirements vary. A variety of options for continuing education are available, from online classes to in-person conferences and retreats.
What Is the Typical Marriage and Family Therapist Salary?
Those interested in this career path will naturally have questions about the median annual salary.
Average Marriage and Family Therapist Salary
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual median salary for marriage and family therapists in 2019 was $49,610. This is roughly commensurate with the annual median salary for social workers, which the BLS puts at $50,470.
Factors Determining Salary
A number of factors can impact salary. Three of the biggest differentiators are education level, years of experience, and geographic locale.
- Those with more advanced degrees tend to command higher salaries, as they have deeper reserves of expertise to draw from.
- Therapists who have more years of clinical experience also tend to command higher salaries than those who are just starting out.
- Geography can also be a factor. Therapists in larger cities with more competitive markets can anticipate slightly higher salaries than those who live in smaller towns with lower costs of living.
What Is the Marriage and Family Therapist Job Outlook?
Another consideration for anyone considering a career in this field: What is the marriage and family therapist job outlook?
Job Outlook for Marriage and Family Therapists
According to BLS data, the job outlook for marriage and family therapists is quite robust, with expected job growth of 22% between 2018 and 2028. The BLS data notes that this is faster than average growth.
It’s worth noting that this job growth actually outpaces that of comparable roles, such as social work. BLS data shows that the job demand for social workers is expected to rise by about 11% during the same timeframe. The job growth for psychologists is projected to be 14%.
Potential Shortage of Behavioral Health Specialists
One potential reason for this robust job growth is a projected shortage of behavioral health professionals, including marriage and family therapists. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projects that demand for these roles will outpace supply in several states. The same data shows that a few larger states, including New York and California, may experience surpluses. This suggests that those who are seeking work in the field may want to consider looking in less populous areas.
Learn More About Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist
Work as a licensed marriage and family therapist can be highly rewarding. It offers an opportunity to consider family dynamics, observe relationships, mediate conflicts, and propose solutions. The work is often not easy, but it can be greatly fulfilling.
Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program can provide the foundational skills and competencies that lend themselves to success in the field, including formal training in substance abuse counseling, group therapy sessions, and more.
The program is designed to equip therapists to provide services to underserved communities, including in rural areas. Additionally, the program helps students:
- Support individuals, families, and communities during times of adversity
- Diagnose and treat addictions and mental illnesses as appropriate
- Apply key therapeutic concepts, including cognitive behavioral therapy
- Understand how public policy impacts the mental and emotional well-being of families and communities
- Prepare to obtain state licensure and begin practicing as a therapist
Ohio University equips students to help individuals and families in need, sit for an examination, and earn licensure — all with the convenience of online learning. Learn more about the program today.
American Psychological Association, What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards, State Requirements
Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards, Your Exam Roadmap
Chron, Good Skills for Being a Family Counselor
Healthline, 9 CBT Techniques for Better Mental Health
Psychology Today, Marriage and Family Therapy
Psychology Today, Reframing
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, State-Level Projections of Supply and Demand for Behavioral Health Occupations: 2016 – 2030