How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

Relationships within the family dynamic can often be the most difficult, the most challenging, and certainly the trickiest to navigate. Today’s family unit may be a nuclear family…a couple without children…a single parent raising one or more children…two adults living together, with or without children…an extended family that may include the addition of aging parents and adult children…stepparents and stepchildren…grandparents raising grandchildren…or empty nesters.

Problems within families range from issues with substance abuse, finances, health (physical or mental) problems, child custody arrangements, infidelity, domestic abuse, blended family dynamics, divorce, separation, remarriage, cohabitation, or death…and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Simply put, in terms of their complexity, no other relationships can compare to those within marriages and families.

But for marriage and family therapists, providing support in the form of counseling for these multifaceted and often complicated relationships is just a typical day at the office.

Using a solution-focused behavioral model, marriage and family therapists introduce attainable, therapeutic goals and the steps needed to achieve specific short-term goals for couples and families in need. This type of counseling lends itself to applied behavior analysis (ABA) techniques, as both are focused on achieving goals through positive reinforcement.

What is a Marriage and Family Therapist? – MFT Job Description

Marriage and family therapy is uniquely structured to handle the complexities of the family unit. Unlike traditional psychotherapy or behavioral therapy that’s focused on one person, marriage and family therapy deals with the relationships within the family unit, whether they occur within the same household or in separate households.

Marriage and family therapy may deal with engaged, cohabitating, married, separated, and divorcing couples. It may also deal with families of nearly shape and form. Adult siblings may be struggling to find common ground on how to care for their aging parents…couples may be struggling with overcoming indiscretions within the marriage or relationship…families and couples may be struggling to deal with death or abandonment…a family may be struggling to understand the mental illness of a parent or child…or couples may be struggling with infertility issues.

The list can and does go on and on.

What Does Marriage and Family Counseling Look Like?

Marriage and family counseling is short-term, goal-based therapy that’s aimed specifically at issues surrounding couples and families. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), a typical course of therapy includes 12 sessions, with the large majority – 88% – completed within 50 sessions.

While marriage and family counseling is structured to address the couple or family as a whole, it includes both individual and group counseling. The AAMFT reports that about half of the treatment is provided on an individual basis, and the other half is provided to the couple/family as a whole.

According to the AAMFT, the following issues are addressed in marriage and family therapy:

  • Adolescent Behavioral Challenges (e.g., depression, self-harm, substance abuse)
  • Childhood Behavioral Challenges (e.g., bullying, mental illness, sibling violence)
  • Couples Challenges (e.g., domestic violence, marital distress, marriage preparation)
  • Emotional (e.g., panic disorder, depression, bereavement, schizophrenia)
  • Family Issues (e.g., stepfamilies, grieving the loss of a child, immigration, caregiving for later-life adults, financial distress)
  • Gender and LGBTQ (e.g., gender identity, male/female sexual problems, gay and lesbian youth)
  • Medical Issues (e.g., chronic illness, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Substance abuse and addiction

Marriage and family therapists often work in the following settings:

  • Private practice
  • Community health centers
  • Drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers
  • Outpatient mental health centers

How Applied Behavior Analysis Can Be a Useful Tool in Marital and Family Counseling

Marriage and family counselors use a number of therapies and techniques, including talk therapy, cognitive-behavior therapy, play therapy, and applied behavior analysis (ABA). The use of ABA in this setting can be useful, given that both ABA and marriage and family counseling are focused on providing short-term, solution-based strategies aimed at positive reinforcement focused on behavioral change.

Using evidence-based ABA techniques, marriage and family therapists identify a family’s issues and the behaviors surrounding those issues and then suggest implementing new behaviors to replace maladaptive ones.

For example, a couple may be at odds over a lack of proper communication. The wife may feel unheard or often ignored, while the husband may feel stressed and overwhelmed over what he perceives as nagging. The marriage and family therapist would recommend initiating a plan that would include a once-daily conversation, free of distractions, that would allow both partners to talk and listen. The result of this daily talk would be an end to what the husband perceived as nagging by his wife and an end to what the wife perceived as dismissiveness by her husband. The elimination of resentment and feelings of anger or frustration by both the wife and husband acts as the positive reinforcement, which would then encourage the couple to continue replacing arguments over a lack of communication (negative behaviors) with daily talks (positive behaviors).

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How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists are mental health professionals who are educated, trained, and licensed to diagnose and treat problems among couples and families. These practitioners are qualified to evaluate and treat mental and emotional disorders and behavioral problems.

Marriage and family therapists hold master’s or doctoral degrees in marriage and family therapy or a master’s degree in a related field, coupled with a post-graduate certificate in marriage and family therapy.

The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) maintains a list of accredited graduate programs and post-graduate certificate programs in marriage and family therapy. Post-graduate certificates generally require a master’s in psychology, social work, or a related mental health field for admission.

After graduation, students must complete a period of post-degree supervised clinical experience (usually about two years) to qualify for state licensure. Once the supervision experience has been completed, candidates can take the national examination for marriage and family therapists through the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. Passing this exam meets the licensing requirements in most states.

The AAMFT maintains a list of state-specific requirements for licensure of marriage and family therapists. All states license marriage and family therapists, and some states also require graduates who are completing the required post-graduate supervised clinical requirements to be licensed.

ABA Education/Certification Options

Adding a specialty certification in applied behavior analysis is not a traditional approach to a career in marriage and family therapy, but it’s starting to emerge as a more popular method of promoting positive behavior change in more and more fields.

Currently, to qualify for the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) designation, you must complete a master’s degree in psychology, education, or behavior analysis that includes acceptable graduate coursework in behavior analysis and a defined supervised practical experience.

You may also qualify by completing a degree in one of these three areas and completing a verified course sequence. A number of schools offer the VCS as either a stand-alone graduate course sequence or as a post-graduate certificate. The VCS can often be completed entirely online, making it a convenient and accessible endeavor for working professionals.

The good news is that in 2022, the BACB will remove the degree restrictions, opening up the BCBA to a wide variety of master’s-level practitioners in human services and counseling fields, including marriage and family therapists.

In anticipation of this change, many schools that offer the VCS have already removed the degree restrictions, allowing counselors, social workers, and other professionals to complete this comprehensive course of study in ABA now. And then, in 2022, you’ll have the option of satisfying the experiential and exam requirements necessary to earn the BCBA designation.

Marriage and Family Therapist Salaries

According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), marriage and family therapists earned the following average salaries at the 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles:

  • 25th: $42,910
  • 50th: $49,880
  • 75th: $75,410
  • 90th: $96,520

Marriage and family therapists earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • New Jersey: $81,330
  • Minnesota: $68,660
  • California: $59,320
  • Illinois: $53,560
  • Florida: $46,410

The top-paying metropolitan areas in the country for marriage and family therapists, according annual mean salary, were:

  • Kingston, NY: $114,090
  • Salt Lake City, UT: $90,670
  • Trenton, NJ: $ 83,940
  • Yuba City, CA: $79,560
  • Boulder, CO: $79,440

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Marriage and Family Therapists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2022.

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