How To Become a Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

Below are some common steps you may follow to become an LMFT.

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
  2. Earn a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy or Related Mental Health Field
  3. Complete Additional Hours of Supervised Clinical Experience
  4. Pass the Required Licensing Exams
  5. Apply for Licensure
  6. Continuing Education

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) receive comprehensive training in family counseling and individual psychotherapy models. Trained in listening, assessing and demonstrating practical interventions to improve quality of life and relationships, they routinely help individuals, families, couples and groups. Becoming an LMFT may be the right option for you if you are passionate about helping people navigate dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors, and overcome obstacles in their marriages and personal family relationships so they may live more fulfilling, happier lives.

Whether you choose to earn a master's or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy, you will likely have the option of completing your education online. Many students find that distance learning offers them the flexibility and affordability they desire.

Pepperdine University is accepting applicants for their online MA in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy. Explore the MA program by requesting information directly from OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine

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Find out common pathways to become a marriage counselor and about marriage and family therapist certification below.

How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

To pursue a career in marriage and family therapy, some students may choose to obtain a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Training may include completing coursework focused on psychotherapeutic theory and pursuing clinical graduate and postgraduate supervised hours of practice.

Here are some common steps you may take to become a marriage and family therapist:

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

While some marriage and family therapy students major in counseling, psychology, social work or sociology during their undergraduate studies, therapists come from all different backgrounds and areas of study. 

If you’re considering entering the therapy field, most marriage and family therapy graduate degree programs will accept your major provided you have completed courses in therapy, group therapy, and psychotherapy. These requisite courses are often available in psychology programs. Other programs that may be beneficial include human studies, sociology or other social sciences. 

Fieldwork or practical experiences in the field may also help display to schools your interest in the therapy profession.

2. Earn a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy or Related Mental Health Field

Both private and public universities offer marriage and family therapy programs. It is useful for prospective MFT students to consider schools approved by the state licensure board in the state they wish to practice (for a full list, see step 5). Alternatively, they may consider schools accredited by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), the Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) during their application process, as these accreditations provide specific quality standards and may increase employment opportunities after graduation. 

A full-time student typically completes a master's program in two to three years. This factors in clinical practice, which gives students practical experience in the field under the supervision of a practicing professional. Some master's degree programs require candidates to complete a thesis. 

Here are two typical counseling degree programs a prospective marriage and family therapist may want to consider on the way to becoming a professional:

Marriage and Family Therapy 

The Master of Marriage and Family Therapy or psychology are typical degree options for this field. 

In a marriage and family master's program, you may learn about more than the fundamentals of human cognition and behavior. As a master's student, you may learn techniques to provide psychotherapy to individuals, couples and families. 

Marriage and family therapy programs typically focus on the following:

  • Counseling theory
  • Couples therapy
  • Clinical interventions and applications
  • Developmental science
  • Law and ethics
  • Multicultural competence
  • Research methods
  • Specific populations: Children and adolescents, couples, domestic violence, elderly, families, LGBTQ and support groups
  • Specific issues: Chemical dependency, eating disorders, grief and trauma, human sexuality, mood and anxiety disorders, personality disorders and spirituality
  • Systems theory

While working toward an MFT degree, you may learn about the needs of various groups and train how to diagnose mental health disorders. You’ll also be taught when a clinician is ethically obligated to refer a client to another professional.

Coursework for this degree may vary by university, but the typical MFT degree may include:

  • Clinical case conceptualization and formulation. These classes may help you understand the client’s problems as a whole before addressing any specific problems. It is supported by a body of research that is used along with the biological, psychological and social observations of the client.
  • Couples therapy. These courses typically cover techniques to manage conflicts, promote deeper friendships and renew intimacy. You may learn how to facilitate healthy conversations and empirically evaluate scenarios to effectively reach resolutions. 
  • Family systems. These courses are about families functioning as a system, with each member having a designated role and responsibility. You may learn to understand the various archetypes and devise a treatment plan to help break through rigid family paradigms by introducing a new flexibility.
  • Research methods and data analysis. You may learn how to analyze a situation critically before you may step into the field. Research methods and data analysis of a client’s problems may provide the means to accurately diagnose issues and provide clients with action to take to overcome their problems. 
  • The counseling process. In this interpersonal course, you may learn the basic principles of communicating, effective counseling and interviewing so you can accurately determine client needs. 

As students progress through school, they typically intern as training therapists. Supervision may help increase awareness about therapist strengths and weaknesses, personal biases and areas of attention that may necessitate more training.

Pepperdine University is accepting applicants for their online MA in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy. Explore the MA program by requesting information directly from OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine

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Mental Health Counseling

Another track to marriage and family therapy is a master’s in mental health counseling degree. Mental health counselors help with the behavioral, emotional and mental health concerns of different populations by use of assessment, crisis management, psychotherapy, therapeutic support and treatment planning.

The Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which accredits degree programs in counseling and its specialties, requires mental health counseling students to take courses in the following areas:

  • Counseling theories and models related to mental health counseling
  • Crisis intervention
  • Cultural factors
  • Diagnostic processes
  • Government policies relating to mental health counseling
  • Inpatient, outpatient, aftercare and the mental health counseling services networks
  • Psychological tests and assessments
  • Record-keeping and third-party reimbursement
  • Settings and roles of mental health counselors
  • Substance use disorders
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3. Complete Additional Hours of Supervised Clinical Experience

To work toward licensing, therapists are expected to complete some additional hours of clinical experience under the tutelage of a certified supervisor. Clinical supervision provides you an opportunity to learn, explore, process and continue growing personally and professionally.

The number of hours needed for this varies by state, but the typical amount of post-master's counseling is 3,000 hours before taking the exam, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The hours may be divided into certain categories, such as direct contact, indirect contact and face-to-face supervision. These hours will be required to be met over a certain period of time, from months to years.

Check with your state to determine the requirements you will need to fulfill.

4. Pass the Required Licensing Exams

State licensure permits you to practice counseling or identify yourself as a licensed counselor. Some states have a single license and some have a two-tiered system. Laws governing licensing differ from state to state.

Licensure titles differ due to the different laws. The most common titles include licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), licenced associate marriage and family therapist (LAMFT), licensed marriage and family counselor (LMFC), licensed clinical marriage and family therapist (LCMFT) and certified marriage and family therapist (CMFT). These licenses are Issued by each state regulatory board.

5. Apply for Licensure

To practice counseling in any state or territory, you must apply for licensure in that area. Check the list below about who to contact, the cost of licenses and more details you might need to know in each state.

Here are the state professional counselor licensure boards:

6. Continuing Education

To maintain licensing, counselors often are required to complete continuing education (CE) hours. These courses provide professional improvement, keep counselors up to date on new field developments, increase career mobility and sometimes offer networking opportunities.

As with licensing, state boards control CE requirements. Required hours vary by state, but each clearly outlines its specifications. 

Online CE courses may also meet these state requirements. The online options also may allow more scheduling flexibility, though states may limit the number of online CE hours you may take. Check with your state counseling board for the most current information on CE requirements.

Here are a few CE resources for you to explore:

  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: Courses offered by this professional organization help meet the needs of mental health professionals and may be accessed, started, paused, and completed at any time. Continuing education requirements for maintaining licensure may be achieved through this site.
  • Aspira Continuing Education: This firm offers online continuing education courses for licensed marriage and family therapists in most states. Check your state’s requirements to see if Aspira’s courses qualify for CE.
  • Professional Development Resources: This company provides marriage and family therapy continuing education courses. Online, video and audio courses are available.
  • PSEI: This nonprofit offers CE with live seminars and online training, along with books, CDs and DVDs. Check with your state to see if PSEI’s courses qualify for continuing education certification.
  • The Gottman Institute: This organization offers training for mental health professionals, including CE for marriage and family therapists. Live training and online courses are available. 

Licensure Requirements for Marriage and Family Therapists

While each state differs in its specific requirements and guidelines for licensure, therapists must typically complete 2,000 to 4,000 documented hours, providing clinical services. These hours must be completed under an approved supervisor who is a licensed marriage family therapist, licensed clinical social worker, licensed professional clinical counselor, or licensed psychologist. To receive licensure, therapists must complete all necessary education courses and clinical hours, and pass the individual state board exams.

Once licensed, MFTs must adhere to all regulations outlined by their board and accrue continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain active status within their roles.

Certification Requirements for Marriage and Family Therapists

MFTs may choose from numerous certificates, workshops and advanced training to enhance their career outlook and professional expertise. Engaging in extended learning may be to acquire knowledge in evidence-based practices, specialize in a particular niche or population or fulfill job requirements.

Some certification examples include:

What Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Do?

Marriage and family therapists help people manage and overcome problems with family and other relationships. In essence, MFTs apply psychotherapeutic techniques to foster growth and satisfaction within intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics.

According to the BLS, MFTs have the following typical responsibilities:

  • Complete and maintain confidential files and mandated records
  • Encourage clients to discuss their experiences and emotions 
  • Guide clients into making decisions about their future
  • Help clients develop skills and strategies to change their behavior and cope with difficult situations
  • Help clients adjust to difficult changes and process their reactions to difficulties such as divorce and layoffs
  • Refer clients to other services or resources in the community, such as inpatient treatment facilities or support groups.

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, marriage and family therapists tend to provide brief, specific, and focused therapy. AAMFT also notes that short-term clinical treatment is common, with 66% of therapies concluding within 20 sessions and 87.9% concluding in 50 sessions. As mental health awareness and destigmatization of therapy continue to improve, at any given time MFTs are treating over 1.8 million Americans.

Marriage and family therapist professionals are expected to have some important qualities, which will help their patients:

  • Communication: A great majority of counseling requires clear communication between the counselor and their clients. Being able to educate clients about treatment processes and treatment plans requires effective understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication. 
  • Compassion: Counselors often work with people who are dealing with stressful and difficult situations in their marriages and relationships, so they must demonstrate compassion and be able to empathize.
  • Critical Thinking: Counselors make diagnoses, implement therapy models and conduct research with clients by combining communication and active listening.
  • Interpersonal: Counselors work with different types of people. They spend most of their time working directly with clients and other professionals and must be able to encourage good relationships.
  • Listening: Being an active listener is a crucial skill for counselors to understand and untangle the concerns and needs of their clients. Counselors will learn what language to listen for and how to identify what information isn’t being said.
  • Organization: Counselors in private practice must work with insurance companies and keep track of payments.
  • Problem-solving: Working through complicated issues is a key part of helping clients solve problems in their own lives or with others in their lives.
  • Research: Studying patients and their behavioral patterns scientifically is a part of the counselor's role, learned through classes and clinical residencies. 

Career Outlook for Marriage and Family Therapists 

There were 59,050 employed MFTs in 2019 according to the BLS. Employment of marriage and family therapists is projected to grow 22% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all other occupations. Health insurance reforms and expanded insurance coverage for mental health coverage will likely impact this increase.

The MFT career tends to be both flexible and versatile in terms of employment industries. Typical MFT workplaces include:

  • General medical hospitals
  • Mental health clinics
  • Military or Veterans Affairs settings
  • Offices of other health care professionals
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Private practice
  • Public or private schools and universities
  • Religious organizations
  • Residential care facilities
  • State-funded clinics and services
  • State government

Currently, the highest concentration of MFT jobs is in California, New Jersey, Maryland, Iowa and Minnesota, with metropolitan, urban areas having the highest saturation of available positions. The mean annual salary for an MFT is $54,590. On average, positions with state governments pay the highest at an annual average of $72,230 and offices of health practitioners typically pay the lowest at $45,150 per year. The highest paying states are Utah, New Jersey, Maine, Colorado and Illinois.

FAQs 

What is marriage and family counseling?

Marriage and family counseling treats not just a single person but the relationships they have in their immediate family, even if only one person is being treated. Marriage and family counseling, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, is brief, solution-focused, specific with attainable goals and designed with the “end in mind.”

How long does it take to become a marriage and family therapist?

According to U.S. News & World Report, most MFT degree programs take full-time students two to three years to complete due to the number of clinical hours and different settings needed to prove competency as a therapist. In that time, you will learn to master the fundamentals of counseling to be prepared for work in your own private practice or setting of choice.

How much do marriage and family therapists make?

Marriage and family therapists earn $54,590 per year, according to the BLS. MFT employment is projected to grow 22% from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Some of this growth is expected because of an increasing use of teams for treatment, as counselors work together to address patients' needs.

What is an MFT license?

Licenses for MFTs certify that they’re permitted to practice in a state. Licensure titles depend on state laws. The most common titles include licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), licenced associate marriage and family therapist (LAMFT), licensed marriage and family counselor (LMFC), licensed clinical marriage and family therapist (LCMFT) and certified marriage and family therapist (CMFT). These licenses are Issued by each state regulatory board.

Why become a marriage and family therapist?

Families and married people struggle even under the best of circumstances. When these people need help, a trained professional may be the best route. If you have a heart for hurting families and want to help, becoming a marriage and family therapist may be for you. An MFT will have a dedicated commitment to improving the lives of their clients and show a strong sense of empathy and compassion. 

What degree is required to become a marriage counselor?

The main degree held by MFTs is a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy. There are other degrees that may lead to an MFT career, including a Master of Mental Health Counseling, psychology or a related field. Whatever degree plan you choose, state licensure must be obtained to begin counseling. 

Last updated: August 2020

Pepperdine University is accepting applicants for their online MA in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy. Explore the MA program by requesting information directly from OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine

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