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What is a Marriage and Family Counselor?

Earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling means that, once you graduate and find a position, you’ll be making a real difference in the lives of the families and couples who need guidance and help in finding healthier ways of interacting with each other.

While the couples and families you will work with will likely still love each other, the challenges in their lives may have taken their relationships off-track. From miscommunication to the resulting anger and pain that each person feels, their issues may feel insurmountable to them, that is until they speak with you and find there are other ways of communication and personal interaction.

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Steps to Become a Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor:

Students majoring in marriage and family therapists learn about mental health and mental illnesses, as well as various disorders. However, this doesn’t make them psychiatrists, despite the knowledge they gain in their classes and internships. Marriage and family therapists are specially educated and trained to work with families and couples who are having significant relationship issues.

  • Step 1: Find a Marriage and Family Therapist Degree Program

  • Step 2: After Graduation, Enter a Master in Marriage and Family Therapy Degree Program

  • Step 3: Find and Participate in Internships at Both Degree Levels

  • Step 4: Earn Your License to Practice


Step 1: Find a Marriage and Family Therapist Degree Program

When you know you want to become a marriage and family therapist, you can start exploring different undergraduate and graduate programs. It’s a good idea to examine them at the same time so that you can see what the requirements are for each. Private and public counseling centers, as well as mental health agencies, are likely to require you to have your master’s in marriage and family therapy or counseling before you begin working for them. You’ll certainly need the required state licensure. You can find the requirements for state licensure on your state board’s website.

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You may also choose to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW), which is one of several ways you can enter the marriage and family therapy field. So consider taking the time to explore this degree program as well; it’ll offer several advantages, such as learning and using cultural competency in your daily work.

Once you have narrowed down your college choices, start comparing the admission requirements for each one. These may include having a high school diploma or GED and taking/passing your ACT or SAT.

Step 2: After Graduation, Enter a Master in Marriage and Family Therapist Degree Program

Once you’ve completed your undergraduate degree and decide it’s time to enter a graduate degree program in marriage and family therapy, you can request admission from the school that has the degree program you need. At one university, you can earn your Master of Science (MS) in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and its emphasis on Marriage and Family Therapy. Any marriage and family therapy/counseling program you choose should heavily emphasize parent-child relationships, family dynamics, and issues that may affect couples.

A good degree program should make it possible for you to plan your degree program based on your future career. In your program, you’ll focus on a family-oriented approach as you learn assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. You’ll also learn how to treat mental, behavioral, emotional, and interpersonal issues. Every marriage and family therapist will be required to earn a license to practice. Your courses should help you begin this process.

Step 3: Find and Participate in Internships at Both Degree Levels

In your undergraduate and graduate programs, always be on the lookout for an internship opportunity. Your professors may have information on local opportunities for you and your fellow students that you can check out. After carefully considering each internship opportunity, choose the one that best fits your future career plans. For instance, if you plan to practice in a private counseling center, choose an internship based in this professional environment if you can.

There, you’ll be working alongside professionals who are actively working with families and couples. You are likely to be assigned to work on some cases with these counselors, shadowing and possibly even providing counseling sessions to your mentor’s clients. Your internship supervisor will monitor your supervised experience and clinical progress and report back to your instructor at the university.

Marriage and family therapy degree programs should be equipped to vet internship sites and contract with them once students decide where they want to complete their internships. This allows your instructor and supervisor to communicate about your experiences and readiness.

Step 4: Earn Your License to Practice

After you’ve graduated, it’s time for you to begin studying for your Marriage and Family Therapy licensing board exam. Once you take and pass your licensing board exam, you will have shown that you have the knowledge and skills you need to work as a marriage and family therapist.

Counseling agencies, whether they are private, non-profit, or government agencies, will require you to become licensed as a marriage counselor. Licensure is mandatory of all counselors, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists as proof that they are legally able to practice. Social workers are also required to earn and hold licensure. For every mental health professional, this licensure must be renewed every few years.

Currently, 50 licensing boards, plus the District of Columbia license mental health and marriage and family practitioners and regulate their practices. This is done because it is very important that the work that therapists and counselors do doesn’t harm their clients. Your state’s regulatory board will renew your license every year or so after you submit proof of completing continuing hours of education.

What Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Do?

Because a marriage and family therapist has been licensed as a mental health professional, they have the knowledge and tools to diagnose and evaluate clients for mental health disorders. Psychological disorders such as depression or substance abuse are especially difficult on close, loving relationships. Even family members who don’t suffer from the mental illness may suffer from a distance. The marriage and family therapist should be able to detect the signs of a mental disorder during therapy sessions for couples or families.

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A marriage and family therapist will also have been trained to address these psychological disorders. These may be a large part of the relationship dysfunction that brings families and couples into family therapy. Once the family member with the mental health issue has been diagnosed and offered treatment, they may be able to see how their disordered thinking and emotions may have contributed to the dysfunctional family dynamic. When this happens, they may make major strides in addressing the damage to their family relationships and they and the rest of the family can begin to heal.

Aside from helping clients address psychological issues, marriage and family counselors also mediate relationships by using and teaching various communication tools. They also help couples and families through difficult times such as job loss, illness, or death. These counselors and help break dysfunctional cycles in family relationships.

Marriage and Family Therapist Skills to Acquire

As a mental health professional, you’ll help your clients set goals that they want to meet as they take part in therapy. Your clinical experience should include counseling theory, as well as modalities of mental health counseling, cultural factors, crisis intervention, settings and roles as a mental health counselor, diagnostic processes, record-keeping and third-party reimbursement, and psychological tests/assessments you’ll use in working with clients.

You’ll also likely work with a number of mental health counseling networks and services as you consider where to refer clients who suffer from mental health issues. You’ll have to be highly familiar with governmental policies that touch upon mental health counseling and you’ll also need to know and understand and deal directly with substance abuse disorders.

Alternative Paths

You might begin working as a mental health counselor, for which you will still need to earn a master’s degree in counseling; once you have worked for a few years as a mental health counselor, you may be able to transition into a marriage and family counselor’s position. However, there aren’t many other options to get into a counseling career. Every state requires that counselors of all kinds have a license. These states may have different requirements for licensure, but education is a huge part of these requirements. You cannot work in a psychology ward as a technician and eventually move up into a counseling position; it’s simply not possible to succeed in this field without a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

Marriage and Family Counselor Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Your career is absolutely necessary. In fact, because of human nature and the sheer number of people who face mental health issues and issues within their marriage and families, you’ll never work yourself out of a job. People are imperfect and they have imperfect reactions to situations and stressors in their lives. This includes relationships, family, and marital interactions.

You will work in one of a variety of settings. These include outpatient care facilities and substance abuse centers, in a private practice with other practitioners, an office or hospital that offers individual and family services, or within local, state, or federal government service offices where you may offer support for those dealing with child protection services or other social or human services. Or, you may be an independent contractor working for yourself and offering marriage and family therapy to your own clients.

Working as a marriage and family therapist, you should expect to work full-time but these hours won’t always be scheduled between 8 and 5. To accommodate your clients’ work and school schedules, you may work weekend or evening hours, or you might even have an emergency line where clients can reach you at all times, even if it is only to refer them to a different service provider.

You can also expect to be involved with supporting duties in some of these work environments, such as managing client notes and keeping them up-to-date or billing.

Career Outlook

As far as job outlook goes, choosing this degree program is an excellent choice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of marriage and family therapists (MFTs) is projected to grow by 22% between 2019 and 2029, which is much higher than it is for all other occupations.

This growth is anticipated to be this high because of the tendency to utilize integrated care (treating multiple issues at the same time by a group of therapeutic colleagues). When integrated care is used, marriage and family therapists also work in concert with counselors who address behavior disorders and substance abuse issues. Mental health counselors are also members of this team, working on addressing clients’ mental health issues at the same time.

Marriage and family therapists have careers or occupations that are similar to psychologists, rehabilitation counselors, social workers, and substance abuse, mental health, and behavioral disorder counselors.

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Advancing From Here

After earning a master’s in marriage and family therapy/counseling or a related field, you may work for a few years, providing counseling services to your clients. After a time, you may consider earning a doctoral degree or Ph. D. This comes with a positive salary differential, meaning your annual salary will jump significantly.

There are also other career paths you could choose to move into: mental health coordinator, associate or adjunct professor, pre-marital counselor, child and adolescent therapist, etc.


The prediction made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) makes it likely that marriage and family therapists will be able to easily find employment in this field due to the increasing need for counseling services.

Once you have graduated and received your license to practice from your state’s regulatory board, you are legally free to begin providing counseling services. The top marriage and family therapist jobs are mental health therapist, team lead (licensed), and marriage and family therapist.

  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist:
    For this position, you must hold a master’s in marriage and family therapy and may be asked to hold one of the following: Ph.D., PsyD, LICSW, EdD, LMFT, or LMHC. In a group practice, you will align yourself with the values of the practice you work with and may look to serve the members of a specific community or demographic such as BIPoC, women, or families with children.
  • Marriage Family Therapist - Remote:
    For this type of position, you must hold licensure in LMHC, PhD, LMFT, LCSW, LPCC, or similar. You should be licensed by a state board to provide counseling, to include marriage and family therapy and you will provide counseling sessions remotely, with a virtual link to your clients. This has become increasingly popular due to the pandemic.
  • Marriage and Family Therapist Associate:
    For this position, you must have a marriage family therapist associate license. You may work with a non-profit organization and focus on working with children, their families, and a few adults as required. In many instances, bilingual ability is a plus but not required.
  • Marriage and Family Therapist/Psychotherapist:
    Some private practices look for slightly more focused therapists to add to their strengths and allow them to reach more clients in their immediate area. They may want you to focus on a specific type of therapy, such as strong systems therapy, or request certain prior experience. In many cases, you will need to be comfortable with several cultures, socio-economic statuses, sexualities, and backgrounds. Your manner should be easily engaging and warm.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Where do marriage and family therapists work?

Marriage and family therapists work in substance abuse treatment centers, mental health centers, and hospitals.

What is a family therapist salary?

A family therapist salary is around $51,000 per year.

Do I need a masters in counseling to be a marriage counselor?

The minimum requirement to apply for a marriage counselor license is a masters degree.

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

To become a marriage and family therapist you will need a masters degree, an internship, and a license. This process typically takes 5-7 years to complete.

What is the job outlook for a marriage and family therapist?

Marriage and family therapist jobs are expected to increase by 16% by 2030.

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