A stereotype exists of dysfunctional families being the primary recipients of counseling. However, marriage and family therapists provide a wide range of services to couples and families at all points in life, even for those whose relationships may seem typical or normal. Every couple and family goes through times of change and experiences challenges, and marriage and family therapists are there to help them every step of the way.
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Marriage and Family Therapy Overview
Marriage and family therapy is one type of psychotherapy, or talk therapy. It focuses on the relationships between all members of a family. A family could be a couple in a romantic relationship, married adults with children or even extended families.
Therapy addresses sources of conflict between family members and helps the whole family cope with specific issues affecting one or more members, such as a drug or alcohol addiction or a mental health condition.
What Is a Marriage and Family Therapist?
Marriage and family therapists are mental health care providers, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses or other professionals licensed to provide counseling or mental health treatment.
Marriage and family counselors have received specialized training in psychotherapy and family dynamics. These therapists work with multiple family members together to resolve conflicts and help spouses and family members relate and interact with each other in positive ways.
They also help manage the mental health conditions of individual family members. Family members of people with mental health conditions are also given strategies on how to cope with or manage such mental disorders in their relatives.
How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist
There is not one strict path to becoming a marriage and family therapist. However, aspiring therapists will need an advanced degree and specific training in family counseling. They will also need to be licensed in the state they intend to practice in.
The first requirement is to get either a master’s or a doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy. Graduate degree programs should be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education.
If someone already has a graduate degree in a different subject, they can complete a post-graduate clinical training program in marriage and family therapy which lasts around three to four years.
Once schooling is complete, at least two years of clinical training in marriage and family therapy are needed before becoming licensed. Usually, students attain initial clinical experience as a part of their degree program, but they still need a set number of hours of post-graduate experience before applying for licensure, which is usually in the form of both shadowing other therapists and working directly with patients under the supervision of a therapist.
Each state has its own requirements for marriage and family therapist licensure and certification. Therapists need to pass an exam and obtain a license to practice from the licensure board of the state they intend to practice in.
A certificate is not required, and certification does not permit someone to practice on their own, but it can be helpful for preparing for licensure. It can also add to therapy credentials and expand career opportunities.
Marriage and family therapists need a specific skillset. They especially need strong interpersonal skill and experience relating well with others. People who want to practice marriage and family therapy will need to develop these skills during their education or training.
Major skills that marriage and family therapists need include:
- Interpersonal skills
- Listening skills
- Conflict resolution
- Critical thinking
- Boundary setting
- Instruction or teaching
- Time management
- Social perception (reading social cues)
- Business management (if going into private practice)
The average salary for marriage and family therapists varies by several factors, such as:
- Level of education
- State and city they practice in
- Amount of experience
- Type of practice (public or private practice)
According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a marriage and family therapist is about $50,090. However, the pay range runs from $31,850 to $82,240 per year.
Treatments a Marriage and Family Therapist Can Provide
Depending on their specific qualifications and licensing, there is a wide range of services that a marriage and family therapist can provide. Most involve psychotherapy, or talk therapy, for individuals and groups.
Couples counseling is sometimes called marriage counseling, as it often (but not always) involves romantic partners in a legal partnership. It applies to both heterosexual and homosexual couples. Often it is short-term, helping resolve a particular issue that the couple is facing. A marriage and family therapist helps the couple reconcile differences, work through sources of resentment or other conflicts and strengthen their intimacy.
Sometimes couples will attend couples counseling during a longer-term therapy regimen. One or both individuals in the relationship often start and continue attending psychotherapy on their own.
Couples considering getting married often include premarital counseling as a part of their wedding preparations. Therapists can help couples discuss their values and make a plan for merging lifestyles. They can also teach couples skills, like conflict resolution, that will be important for entering a long-term partnership.
Family therapy works with multiple members of a family together, and often includes parents and children, but can involve other relatives as well.
Often, family therapy helps the whole family deal with a specific mental or physical condition that one family member is facing. This condition may be a mental illness, a substance use disorder or a chronic physical illness.
In addition to the person coping with the disease, family members often need help coping with the stressful situation and navigating changes in their relative’s emotional state. Family therapy may be especially helpful for caregivers of people with long-term disabilities.
Sometimes, families are faced with legal challenges. During these times, family members can find it difficult to come to a resolution among themselves. In these situations, marriage and family therapists can provide unbiased advice and assistance for coming to a solution out of court.
Such cases may involve making a child custody plan in the event of a divorce or settling an estate among relatives of someone recently deceased. Hiring a therapist as a mediator can also help improve family relationships after the process.
Finding a Marriage and Family Therapist
Finding a good therapist can seem like a daunting task. Understandably, many people may be uncomfortable asking people in their social groups for recommendations for a therapist that can help with family or marital problems. Fortunately, there are several good resources for identifying a marriage or family therapist nearby.
The first option is a family doctor, pediatrician or another primary care provider. Doctors will have a contact list of local therapists with different specialties. They can refer patients to the appropriate therapist.
Another good resource is the internet. Professional groups for therapists, such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, or resource organizations for patients have finder tools that can search for nearby therapists matching specific criteria.
Substance use disorders such as alcoholism or a drug dependency affect the whole family. If you or a family member are struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, you can always find help. Contact The Recovery Village today if you or a family member needs help to overcome a substance addiction.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. “About Marriage and Family Therapists.” (n.d.) Accessed May 19, 2019. Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education. “COAMFTE.” (n.d.) Accessed May 19, 2019. MFT-License.com. “Marriage and Family Therapist Licensure.” (n.d.) Accessed May 19, 2019. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Marriage and Family Therapists.” May 2018. Accessed May 19, 2019.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. “About Marriage and Family Therapists.” (n.d.) Accessed May 19, 2019.
Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education. “COAMFTE.” (n.d.) Accessed May 19, 2019.
MFT-License.com. “Marriage and Family Therapist Licensure.” (n.d.) Accessed May 19, 2019.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Marriage and Family Therapists.” May 2018. Accessed May 19, 2019.