How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) help clients manage and improve their relationships by applying goal-oriented cognitive behavioral therapy. Sometimes referred to as marriage counselors, marriage and family therapists work with clients individually and in various family groupings to help root out issues with familial roles, life changes, and mental health struggles.

What’s more, marriage and family therapy can be a rewarding career path with significant potential for growth. The demand for practicing marriage counselors through 2026 is significantly higher than the national average for all occupations. The field is projected to grow by 23% over that span – well higher than the 7% average growth of the American workforce.

Steps to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

Becoming a marriage and family therapist requires specific training and certification in order to practice legally in the United States. This typically means a master’s degree or higher along with thousands of hours of supervised fieldwork and passage of a state-approved exam.

Step One: Education

Most states require marriage and family therapists to hold a master’s degree in either marriage and family therapy or a relevant mental health field such as psychology.

To start, those interested in a career in any psychological or mental health field should pursue a bachelor’s degree in a relevant area such as counseling, psychology, or social work. These degrees all provide a combination of strong educational foundations and introductory field experiences that pave the way for the demands of the required MFT post-baccalaureate work.

When choosing a master’s degree program in pursuit of a MFT career, there are several options. Some master’s programs can be completed in two years or less (not including clinical fieldwork and internship requirements) either online, on campus, or through a hybrid of both. Furthermore, different schools offer different degree programs with varying names and titles. Some examples include:

  • Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Master of Science in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Master of Science in Mental Health and Wellness

Despite the semantic differences and slight variations in curricula, these types of programs can typically each meet the requirements for state licensure. Relevant coursework in these programs include classes geared towards couples’ counseling, therapeutic theory and practice, and life span development. 

Whatever educational path you take on your way to an MFT career, the key is to make sure the program you choose is accredited by one of the following national organizations:

This helps ensure that the work and financial commitments you make to your MFT education will indeed help move you toward your ultimate aims.

Step Two: Field Experience

While the amount varies by state, every marriage and family therapist is required to complete supervised internship hours in the field as a prerequisite to licensure. In most cases, this is a one-year clinical rotation whereby a certain number of hours are expected to be spent in very specific qualifying experiences. Most states impose strict minimums and/or limits on the number of hours spent in various types of field practice including:

  • conducting one-on-one therapy
  • conducting group, couples, and/or family therapy
  • participating in research
  • performing non-patient-contact services

Additionally, there are usually specific requirements for how many clinical hours must be conducted under one-to-one supervision by an experienced, licensed marriage and family therapist.

Again, the specific internship requirements vary by state, but prospective marriage and family therapists can expect to spend anywhere from 1,500-4,000 hours in the field accruing work experience prior to receiving a license to practice.

Step Three: Certification and Licensure

Just like with the number and structure of marriage and family therapists’ internship hours, each state has its own licensing procedure. The Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB) offers a state-by-state roadmap for licensure including requisite education, qualifying supervision, number and type of clinical hours, and testing requirements.

Most states rely on the AMFTRB–developed MFT National Examination as their official licensing test. The exam covers a wide array of content including:

  • therapeutic practice
  • diagnostics
  • treatment
  • evaluating treatment
  • crisis management
  • professional ethics
  • legal standards

More information about the MFT National Examination can be found here.

What does a Marriage and Family Therapist Do?

Once licensed, marriage and family therapists provide individual patients, couples, and families with a wide array of mental, emotional, cognitive, social, and behavioral support. While the title suggests that MFTs deal primarily with groups, individual care comprises a significant portion of the average MFT’s caseload.

As far as what marriage and family therapists specifically treat, everything from simple disagreements and conflicts to divorce and abuse fall within an MFT’s purview. The ability to deliver a combination of individual and group therapy leads to a uniquely effective approach to solving a whole host of personal and relationship-based health needs. This type of care is commonly regarded as short-term care as most cases are addressed successfully in 20 sessions or less.

At the root, marriage and family therapists guide patients through their interpersonal struggles while also addressing intrapersonal concerns. Becoming an MFT is an excellent career choice for one who is seeking to turn his or her strong listening abilities, a capacity to articulate observations, and general compassion for others into a positive and fulfilling livelihood.

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