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Marriage and Family Therapist Career Guide

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are about 59,000 marriage and family therapists, also known as marriage and family counselors, in the US.1 Marriage and family therapists help their clients learn how to form and maintain healthy relationships with others, from family relationships to romantic relationships to relationships with coworkers. Marriage and family therapists can be found working in many different settings. Most commonly, they work in individual and family services settings (30%).2 Marriage and family counselors also work in the offices of other health practitioners (20%), outpatient care centers (12%), state government agencies (9%), and as self-employed therapists (9%).2 In this guide, you’ll learn more about how to become a marriage and family therapist, common requirements, and the career and salary outlook for marriage and family therapists.

What Do Marriage and Family Therapists Do?

Marriage and family therapists help individuals, couples, families, and other groups learn how to build, manage, and promote healthy relationships and interactions with other people. Marriage and family counseling can take place one-on-one or in group settings. Marriage and family counselors often specialize in working with a particular group of people, such as youth, families, or couples in romantic relationships. They may also specialize in marriage and family therapy for those who have specific mental illnesses or related challenges, such as substance abuse. When researching how to become a marriage counselor you may also see family counselor positions that specialize specifically in family services.

Marriage and family therapists usually develop their practice around a particular “school” of mental health treatment, such as psychotherapy (“talk therapy”). However, marriage and family therapy is almost always behaviorally-focused, meaning that the goal of the therapist is to help his or her client(s) modify their behaviors in order to find success in their interactions and relationships with others. Marriage and family therapists most often perform their work as part of a group practice or larger health system, such as outpatient care affiliated with a hospital system. As a result, they often work as part of a care team that includes other mental health and medical professionals such as doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

Marriage and Family Therapist Requirements and Common Tasks

Marriage and family counselors must be appropriately licensed by the state in which they are working in order to practice marriage and family therapy. All 50 states and Washington DC require that prospective marriage and family therapists have at least a master’s degree, typically in marriage and family therapy, although other degrees such as a mental health counseling may be acceptable if they include the appropriate coursework. Marriage and family therapists must also earn supervised experience after graduating from a master’s program in order to become fully licensed; one to three years is a common licensure requirement. Those interested in the field who have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree will not be eligible for licensure, but may qualify for support roles such as counselor’s aide or behavioral health technician.

In addition to direct work with clients during counseling sessions, marriage and family therapists undertake a variety of supporting duties. Paperwork management is a critical component of counseling work, as therapists must thoroughly document patient histories, counseling sessions, and ultimate outcomes. Since marriage and family therapists may be limited in their scope of practice to focusing on relationship issues it is also common for them to refer patients to other mental health professionals when a patient’s challenges go beyond the scope of marriage and family therapy.

All marriage and family therapists undertake continuing education as a form of professional development in order to keep their license active. The amount and timing of continuing education required varies by state, but in most cases includes a requirement that at least some professional coursework be undertaken during each calendar year. Keeping up-to-date with developments in counseling best practices is also important in order to provide the best possible therapy to clients.

How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

Like other types of counselors, marriage and family therapists often work with clients who are in a vulnerable position. This is a leading reason why all states in the US closely regulate the licensure of marriage and family therapists. As noted above, a master’s degree or above is required in order to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. Therefore, the typical process to become a marriage and family therapist involves:

  1. Earning a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or in mental health counseling or a related field that meets your state’s licensing requirements.
  2. Gaining one to three years of supervised experience working in marriage and family therapy, according to state licensing guidelines.
  3. Taking the licensing exam(s) for marriage and family therapists required by your state.
  4. Applying for a marriage and family therapist license.
  5. Once licensed, applying for marriage and family therapist jobs.

Marriage and family therapist (MFT) is the most common title for this career, although there are other variations. Common variations for licensure include licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), licensed marital and family therapist (LMFT), and licensed clinical marriage and family therapist (LCMFT). Common job title variations include marriage and family counselor, relationship counselor/therapist, and marriage therapist.

Marriage and Family Therapist Education and Job Training

A master’s degree is the entry-level requirement to become licensed and work as a marriage and family therapist. In some states, you may be able to work in a support role in marriage and family therapy with an undergraduate degree and/or without becoming licensed as long as you are working under the supervision of a licensed professional, though you will not be able to provide direct marriage and family therapy services.

There are numerous degree programs in marriage and family therapy that can help you get started on a path to this career. If you have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree, earning your bachelor’s will be the first step. There are bachelor’s programs in counseling, psychology, and human services as well as other related fields that can help prepare you for the required master’s in marriage and family therapy. Thanks to the availability of online counseling programs, you may be able to continue working while you study. Be sure to check with your state and become familiar with licensing requirements before committing to a program.

Marriage and Family Therapy Careers by Degree Level

To help you research and learn more about careers in marriage and family therapy with different degrees, we have provided the following summary of careers by degree level. Be aware that licensing rules vary by state and a given state may have different exceptions for therapy-related roles that are required to be licensed. Additionally, employers commonly use different terms to describe roles that can be similar and often have different requirements as well. Keeping this in mind, the below table is a general outline of common degree requirements by role. Requirements for a given job or job posting may vary.

Job TitleAssociate’s Degree Commonly RequiredBachelor’s Degree Commonly RequiredMaster’s Degree Commonly RequiredPhD Commonly Required
Behavioral Health TechnicianYes
Case Coordinator/ManagerYes
Counselor AideYes
Crisis Specialist or TechnicianYes
Department ChairYes
Family Counselor/TherapistYes
Human Services WorkerYes
Intake CounselorYes
Intervention SpecialistYes
Licensed Marriage and Family TherapistYes
Marriage and Family Therapy AssociateYes
Marriage and Family Therapy Program ManagerYes
Mental Health TechnicianYes
Mental Health Worker, Residential Treatment CenterYes
Professional TherapistYes
ProfessorYes
Research AssistantYes
ResearcherYes
TherapistYes

Marriage and Family Therapist Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the average annual marriage and family therapist salary was $49,610 as of 2019.1 The greatest number of marriage and family therapists are employed in California (31,710), followed by New Jersey (4,300), Florida (1,990), Pennsylvania (1,820), and Arizona (1,590).1 The highest average annual salary for marriage and family therapists is found in Utah ($76,240), rounded out by New Jersey ($75,930), Maine ($71,730), Colorado ($70,800), and Illinois ($69,900).1 The salary that marriage and family therapists can expect is based on various factors including the type of license held, years of experience, specialty area, and geographic location.

Demand for licensed marriage and family therapists is expected to remain high through the coming years due in large part to a focus on medical care that integrates different disciplines in a “whole person” approach, leading to job growth in this field.2 Through 2028, job growth of 22% is expected for marriage and family therapists, equating to 12,300 new jobs added to the workforce in the US.2

Marriage and Family Therapist Career Interviews

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) working with men and couples, John Skandalis

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

Where do marriage and family therapists work?

Common workplace settings for marriage and family therapists include mental health centers and agencies, private practices, and inpatient facilities. Marriage and family therapists can also be found working in social service and community agencies and academic institutions.

How much do marriage counselors make?

Nationally, the average annual salary for marriage and family therapists is $49,610 per year.1 The salary an individual therapist can expect may be higher or lower based on a variety of factors, including geographic area, specialty, experience, and education. For example, the top-paying industry for marriage and family therapists is state government, with an average annual salary of $69,900, compared to the lowest-paying industry, individual and family services at an average of $44,760.2

How do you become a family counselor or marriage and family therapist?

In order to become a marriage and family therapist, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or a master’s degree in mental health counseling that includes the required courses in your state. After graduating, you will need to complete between one and three years of experience under the supervision of a licensed marriage and family therapist, depending on your state’s requirements. You may then apply for a license and, once you receive it, begin working as a marriage and family therapist.

What is marriage counseling?

Marriage counseling is a specialty within therapy that aims to help people who are in romantic relationships build healthy behaviors that support the relationship and their partner. This typically involves both one-on-one counseling with the partners as well as group therapy sessions that involve the partners together. Also known as couples counseling or relationship counseling, there are various theories and methods involved in this type of therapy. Effective marriage counselors will often use a mix of these theories and methods to promote the best outcomes for their clients.

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Marriage and Family Therapists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211013.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Marriage and Family Therapists:
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/marriage-and-family-therapists.htm