Counseling

The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist

The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist
The job market for marriage and family therapists is expected to grow by 22 percent in the next decade, which is more than three times faster than other occupations. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry February 3, 2020

Marriage and family therapists, or MFTs, are relationship experts and so much more. They diagnose and treat all kinds of mental and emotional disorders within the context of complex family systems. It isn't easy work, but some people love the challenge.

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Marriage and family therapists (sometimes called marital and family therapists or MFTs) provide marriage counseling, obviously, but that’s hardly the extent of their practice. They also work with parents, children, partners, and siblings to treat a variety of family situations and mental and emotional disorders.

Should you decide to become a marriage and family therapist, you will meet with individuals, couples, parents and children, and large family groups. You’ll have a primary client (or pair of clients), but in the course of working with them, you may end up meeting with their relatives, friends, or even colleagues. Untangling the complicated connections between people and understanding how those entanglements impact a person’s life can be quite challenging.

That’s why MFTs are required to complete not one but two years of supervised on-the-job training—sometimes paid, but often not—before they can get a license to practice independently. It’s a big commitment, so you shouldn’t choose this career without carefully weighing the pros and cons.

In this article about the advantages and disadvantages of being a marriage and family therapist, we’ll cover:

  • What do marriage and family therapists do?
  • How does someone become a marriage and family therapist?
  • What’s the difference between marriage and family therapists and clinical psychologists?
  • What’s the difference between marriage and family therapists and licensed clinical social workers?
  • What are the benefits of being a marriage and family therapist?
  • What are the drawbacks of becoming a marriage and family therapist?
  • How much do marriage and family therapists make?
  • Is marriage and family therapy a good career?

What do marriage and family therapists do?

MFTs use psychotherapeutic techniques and family systems theories to treat a variety of cognitive, mood, nervous, or behavioral problems. Most people equate marriage and family therapy with marriage counseling, but MFTs treat individuals as well as couples and families. Their role is similar to that of other psychotherapists and counselors. They ask questions, listen carefully, and offer clients practical strategies for addressing concerns like:

Career anxiety

Therapists can help families, couples, and individuals navigate busy careers, financial stress, or a work-life balance in and out of the home.

Clinical mental illness

When one or more family members struggle with mental illness, an MFT therapist will help the whole family build a healthy support system and develop communication habits fit to their loved one’s needs.

Divorce

Marriage and family therapists can be key supports for everyone involved in a divorce, both before and after. Some therapists specialize in co-parenting or child wellness during these transitions.

Financial stress

Many families and individuals seek help from a therapist to identify financial stress coping mechanisms, debt repayment, or unhealthy financial habits in the family.

Marital distress

These therapists are often consulted for marital problems such as infidelity, communication troubles, or after a major challenge or loss.

Parenting problems

MFTs may receive specific training to help parents and children communicate in a healthy and productive manner. They may work specifically with the parents, children, or the whole group as a whole.

Relationship issues

Couples seek MFT help outside of marriage as well, such as during long-term relationships, the transition to living together, or after a breakup.

Substance abuse

Many families benefit from therapy when one or more family members is struggling—or has struggled—with addiction and rehabilitation.

Most clients see an MFT for about 12 sessions. It’s unusual for people to need more than 20 sessions to resolve their issues.

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How does someone become a marriage and family therapist?

It takes years to become a marriage and family therapist. To practice marital and family therapy, you need to have at least a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Look for programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), because these specifically prepare students to become Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT). You can find COAMFTE-accredited programs at:

Bethel University

In as little as three years, students can complete an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy both online and in person. This particular program combines common MFT theories and clinical practice with beliefs of the Christian faith.

East Carolina University

As the first program in North Carolina to receive COAMFTE certification, East Carolina University offers a highly rated, licensure-track MS program. The hands-on curriculum provides ample clinical experience under the supervision of a faculty member.

Fairfield University

Choose from either a clinical MA in Marriage and Family Therapy or a non-clinical MA in Family Studies. Both programs approach the practice with the aim to overcome biases, inequalities, and support a diverse population of patients.

Florida State University

At FSU, students can either earn a PhD, MS, or a dual degree in either Marriage and Family Therapy, Hum Development and Family Science, or Family and Child Services. This range of options serves everyone seeking a clinical license to those looking to work in the social welfare field or teach in secondary education.

Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University)

In this full-time, two-year program, students can choose either a family therapy or sex therapy concentration. The school specifies that it combines social, biological, and psychological topics to explore family systems and the common challenges they face.

Kansas State University

After earning a bachelor’s degree, students can choose from a doctoral track or a master’s program in either five or two to three years respectively. In addition to preparing for licensure, students can develop research initiatives in tandem with the faculty.

University of Nevada – Las Vegas

The Master of Science in Couple and Family Therapy at the University of Nevada offers a thesis or non-thesis track. During the program, students directly support the local family counseling clinic in Las Vegas, complete an internship, and qualify to test for state licensure.

University of Rochester

This cross-disciplinary program is based in the school’s department of psychiatry. Students can choose from a wide range of local organizations, hospitals, and clinics in the area specific to their concentration and career path.

Utah State University

The thesis and non-thesis tracks at Utah State have a 100% job placement rate after graduation nearly every year for the past decade. Courses in both tracks cover topics such as cultural diversity, statistics, and MFT theories.

You may find it easier to be accepted into a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy, MS in Marriage and Family Counseling, or an MS in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling program if you have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology, or behavioral science. Many advanced MFT degree programs require applicants to have completed prerequisite coursework in human development, research methods, and counseling, courses you will complete in the process of earning those bachelor’s degrees. You should also take advantage of opportunities to intern in settings where therapy takes place during your undergrad years, if possible.

Students in two- and three-year MFT master’s degree programs (whether online master’s degree programs, on-campus, or hybrid) study:

Child and adolescent psychology

The course may cover everything from cognitive development to behavioral changes, particularly in relation to parents and other family members.

Clinical counseling techniques

Students will explore the traditional and modern research behind various approaches to counseling and patient support.

Cross-cultural communication

Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of therapy, especially when it comes to family and community practice. These topics are often explored both in the classroom and through a range of clinical settings.

Developmental science

Students also will study the biological changes associated with human development, particularly as it applies to emotions, behavior, and decision-making.

Family systems

The study of family systems outlines theories and research to support communication, daily functioning, and emotional goals as a family unit in a home.

Human sexuality

Prospective therapists can study ways to assist patients through challenges with their sexual relationships, identities, and associations related to their partner.

Psychological theory

Counselors from all areas often begin by exploring the foundation theories of psychology from its conception to current research.

Trauma treatment techniques

MFT curriculum often includes modern treatments from traumatic events and how they relate to individuals, families, and couples that have faced unique challenges.

Programs also require students to log a certain number of practical clinical fieldwork hours and possibly complete a research project to graduate.

While licensing requirements for marriage and family therapists differ from state to state, all 50 states require MFTs to complete two years of clinical work supervised by an LMFT, psychologist, or LCSW. Marriage and family therapists can fulfill this obligation in any setting that provides mental health services, including:

Therapy practices

This includes private or public clinics that meet with individuals for psychological care or relationship support.

Group therapy settings

Organizations in communities, schools, or in relation to nonprofits may invite specific groups to work through problems together. This may include family support, substance abuse, or trauma.

Human services agencies

Nonprofit and government-supported agencies often provide psychological support in both individual and group settings. Agencies typically serve those with economic challenges, disabilities, or addictions.

Community organizations

Students can choose a local organization that serves a specific community, such as those with a specific background, identity, affinity, or facing similar challenges.

Colleges and universities

Many MFT candidates can work directly with their university in the campus clinic. These offices typically support current students, the local community, or a combination of both.

Sometimes supervised clinical work is paid, but often, it’s not.

After completing two years of supervised work, an MFT can apply to their state licensing board for a license that will allow them to practice independently. Some states have their own licensing exams, while others use the Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards‘s MFT National Examination. Most licenses last two years, during which a therapist must accrue enough continuing education credits to be eligible for re-licensing.

What’s the difference between marriage and family therapists and clinical psychologists?

MFTs and clinical psychologists are both mental health professionals legally permitted to provide individual therapy for clients facing a variety of issues and run group therapy sessions.

Clinical psychologists, however, are more likely to work with people who are suffering from severe mental illnesses or emotional problems, while marriage and family therapists typically work with people coping with complicated familial relationships or working through transitions that involve relatives or a spouse.

That may be why clinical psychologists are required to hold a doctorate to practice (either a PhD or a Doctor of Psychology degree) and complete a year of supervised clinical practice hours, while MFTs can practice after completing a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and completing two years of supervised clinical practice hours.

Some marital and family therapists do go on to earn doctoral degrees (like a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy or Doctorate of Marriage and Family Therapy), but having a doctorate doesn’t confer higher-level licensure. Because of the difference in required degrees, some patients may consider MFTs as having a lower level of expertise or skill than clinical psychologists.

What’s the difference between marriage and family therapists and licensed clinical social workers?

MFTs and LCSWs are both counseling professionals qualified to treat clients with different types of mental, emotional, or practical issues. Both need a master’s degree to offer clinical counseling legally. Marital and family therapists typically specialize in direct psychotherapeutic interventions for families, however, and clinical social workers can work with many kinds of clients and with community groups. They’re also qualified to handle case management and to work in public policy.

What are the benefits of being a marriage and family therapist?

There are lots of reasons that people enjoy working in marriage and family therapy. Among them:

Federal recognition

Marriage and family therapists are recognized by the federal government as core mental health providers along with psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, and psychiatric nurse practitioners.

Stable salaries

It’s possible to make good money in this specialty. ZipRecruiter reports that the average marriage and family therapist salary is $85,000 per year .

Flexible schedules

Marriage and family therapists are often able to set their own schedules and keep flexible working hours because they’ve opened their own practices (something every aspiring MFT should consider doing).

Community impact

Marriage and family therapists also enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that what they do helps people lead better lives and have stronger, more stable relationships.

Effective care

Research has repeatedly shown that marital and family therapy is an effective way to treat most mental and emotional disorders and issues.

Relevant training

MFTs are obviously qualified to handle marital conflicts, but they can also treat many conditions, including grief, depression, anxiety, behavioral problems in children, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.

Patient success

Most people who seek out the services of an MFT are satisfied with the care they receive and report improvements in relationships, productivity, emotional health, and physical health.

Career variety

Every day is different when you become a marriage and family therapist because the challenges couples, individual adults, children, and families deal with are complex and varied.

What are the drawbacks of becoming a marriage and family therapist?

The disadvantages of going into marriage and family therapy are almost all related to professional stress. They include the following:

Mental impact

Working with people can be as draining as it is invigorating. Helping clients cope with trauma, hurt, and bad relationships day in and day out is stressful. MFTs need to have a strong support network and effective coping strategies.

Patient challenges

Clients are only human, and, inevitably, some people you’ll work with when you become a marriage and family therapist will be difficult. You’ll sometimes have to deal with missed appointments, clients who don’t pay their bills on time, and dissatisfied or angry people.

Balancing a business

In a group practice, you might feel pressure to take on too many clients or to meet unreasonable deadlines. If you open your own practice, you’ll have to deal with the ups and downs of owning a business.

Client pushback

You’ll sometimes work with people (often spouses and children) who aren’t shy about telling you they’d rather be anywhere else than in your office. This might just be the most significant disadvantage of becoming an MFT. You’ll have to deal with spouses unhappy about being dragged into marriage counseling sessions or relatives who don’t want to acknowledge that a child has a problem.

How much do marriage and family therapists make?

The answer to this question depends on multiple factors, which means that the typical MFT salary can be a pro—if ZipRecruiter’s figures above are correct—or a con. According to PayScale, however, the average marriage and family therapist salary is just over $63,764. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ figures are even lower.

If you want to maximize your earning potential after becoming a family therapist, look for opportunities to work in private practice or state government in Provo, Utah (where the median pay for MFTs is $95,670); Honolulu, Hawaii; York, Pennsylvania; or Eugene, Oregon.

Is marriage and family therapy a good career?

If your goal is to make your living helping people, this isn’t just a good career—it’s a great one. Marriage and family therapy is hugely effective because it’s a time-based, solutions-oriented form of counseling. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, “Almost 90 percent of clients report an improvement in their emotional health, and nearly two-thirds report an improvement in their overall physical health. A majority of clients report an improvement in their functioning at work, and over three-fourths of those receiving marital/couples or family therapy report an improvement in the couple relationship. When a child is the identified patient, parents report that their child’s behavior improved in 73.7 percent of the cases, their ability to get along with other children significantly improved and there was improved performance in school.”

On top of that, the job market for marriage and family therapists is expected to grow by 16 percent in the next decade, which is two times faster than other occupations.

If you choose this career, you’ll enjoy good pay, job security, professional fulfillment, and a high degree of flexibility. Compared to all that, the disadvantages are pretty minor.

(This article was updated on January 18, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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