How to Become a Couples Therapist

How to Become a Couples Therapist
Completing a bachelor's degree program is only the first step. Aspiring couples therapists must then earn a master's degree or a doctoral degree, depending on whether they want to study counseling, social work, or psychology. Image from Unsplash
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Christa Terry March 25, 2020

Many educational paths lead to a career as a couples therapist. You can pursue a degree in marriage and family therapy, but that's hardly your only choice.

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Couples therapy is fundamentally different from other forms of counseling. It has to address the needs of two people. It can be adversarial. And there’s a difference that isn’t quite as obvious: couples therapy can be a lot more stressful than other forms of psychotherapy and counseling for the therapist providing it.

Many forms of clinical therapy prioritize listening. In couples therapy, however, the therapist has to be an impartial mediator or even a referee. That can be surprisingly difficult.

“I thought a couple came in, and they would tell me their story, and I would say, you’re right, you’re wrong, and I would break the tie,” marriage therapist Pat Love told the Chicago Tribune. She later realized that her role as a couples therapist was to treat relationships, not individuals.

Couples therapists (also called relationship therapists, couples counselors, or marriage counselors) weren’t always mediators. In fact, up until about the 1960s, there were no couples therapists. A wife or a husband in a troubled marriage might meet singly with a counselor—usually a doctor, pastor, or social worker—and that counselor would tell them what they needed to do to fix their marital issues.

When divorce rates shot up in the 1970s, more therapists started meeting with couples in what is known as ‘conjoint therapy’. There wasn’t a lot of research to support couples therapy at the time, and the average success rate was only about 50 percent. Modern couples therapy, which uses proven therapeutic techniques like Emotionally-Focused Therapy and the Gottman Method, is much more effective.

If you’re interested in helping people have longer-lasting, more satisfying relationships (not just marriages), this is definitely a career you should explore. In this article about how to become a couples therapist, we cover:

  • What is couples therapy?
  • Are all couples counselors marriage and family therapists?
  • What are the education requirements to become a couples counselor?
  • Is the MFT degree the best option for couples therapists?
  • What are the requirements to become a certified couples counselor?
  • What skills are required to be a successful couples counselor?
  • How long does it take to become a couples therapist?
  • What career paths can you take in couples therapy?
  • What is the salary for a certified couples counselor?
  • Is couples therapy a good career?

What is couples therapy?

Couples therapy is a form of mental health counseling or psychotherapy that helps people resolve conflicts, understand and improve their relationships, and meet relationship goals.

While many people equate couples therapy with marriage counseling, couples therapists work with all kinds of couples. Married couples are probably the most likely pairs to seek out relationship counseling, but couples counselors also work with people who are in dating relationships, couples going through divorce proceedings, and people in non-traditional relationships (e.g., non-monogamous or polyamorous partnerships).

Most people seek out the help of a couples counselor because they want to solve a specific issue like:

  • Anger
  • Communication problems
  • Conflict in blended families
  • Dissatisfaction or unhappiness
  • Divorce
  • Domestic abuse
  • Infidelity
  • Jealousy
  • Lack of love
  • Loneliness
  • Parenting differences
  • Relationship distress
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Substance abuse

Consequently, couples therapy tends to be objective-oriented, solution-focused, and time-limited. Whether couples attend couples counseling sessions together or apart, they usually achieve their goals more quickly in couples therapy than they would in other forms of clinical therapy.



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Are all couples counselors marriage and family therapists?

Couples therapy and marriage counseling are two names for the same discipline, but that doesn’t mean that all couples counselors are marriage and family therapists (MFTs). All kinds of clinical therapists, from psychologists to licensed therapists to professional counselors to clinical social workers, can work with people to improve their relationships.

However, MFTs have an advantage in this area because they receive extra training related to healthy interpersonal relationships and marital therapy. They’re also trained to look at mental health concerns and emotional disorders through the lens of a person’s relationships.

What some people find surprising is that not all marriage and family therapists are couples counselors. Like other clinical mental health professionals, MFTs are qualified to treat a variety of cognitive, mood, nervous, and behavioral problems—even severe conditions as part of a therapeutic team. They can provide all kinds of mental health counseling, using a variety of psychotherapeutic techniques. While working with patients, an MFT might use cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, or other forms of psychotherapy more commonly associated with psychologists and professional counselors.

What are the education requirements to become a couples counselor?

Couples counselors come from a variety of educational backgrounds at the master’s degree program level. Most earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, sociology, or social science first. Some colleges and universities offer undergraduate degrees in counseling, and this might be the best option for aspiring couples therapists. Students in these programs take core courses like English and math, but also study subjects like:

  • Counseling Techniques: Covers various strategies and methods used in counseling sessions to help clients achieve their goals. This includes techniques such as active listening, empathy, questioning, and goal-setting.
  • Crisis Intervention: Focuses on immediate, short-term assistance provided to individuals experiencing an acute psychological crisis. It teaches how to assess, stabilize, and support individuals in crisis to prevent further psychological harm.
  • Diversity in Counseling: Explores the impact of cultural, ethnic, and social diversity on the counseling process. This includes understanding the unique needs of clients from different backgrounds and developing culturally competent counseling practices.
  • Family Systems and Dynamics: Examines the interactions and relationships within family units. It covers theories and models that explain how family members influence each other’s behavior and how family systems function.
  • Family Therapy: Teaches techniques and approaches used to treat psychological issues within the context of the family. This includes working with families to improve communication, resolve conflicts, and support individual members’ mental health.
  • Human Development: Studies the physical, cognitive, and emotional growth of individuals across the lifespan. This subject includes understanding developmental stages and the factors that influence development from infancy to old age.
  • Methods of Counseling: Covers various approaches and modalities used in counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and humanistic therapy. It involves learning the theoretical foundations and practical applications of these methods.
  • Psychology: Provides a broad understanding of human behavior and mental processes. This includes studying theories of personality, learning, cognition, emotion, and mental health disorders.

Completing a bachelor’s degree program is only the first step. Aspiring couples therapists must then earn a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, depending on whether they want to study counseling, social work, or psychology. Both educational pathways involve clinical internships and residencies, but earning the PhD or a PsyD required to become a psychologist usually takes longer (three or more years versus two).

The Master of Family Therapy (MFT) is the obvious choice. This degree goes by many names: Master of Marriage and Family Therapy, Master of Science in Marriage and Family Counseling, or Master of Science in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling, among others. In these degree programs designed to train the next generation of licensed marriage therapists, students study:

  • Clinical Counseling Techniques: Involves practical skills and methods used in clinical settings to support and guide clients through therapy. This includes building rapport, conducting assessments, and implementing treatment plans.
  • Cross-Cultural Communication in Counseling: Explores effective communication strategies when working with clients from diverse cultural backgrounds. Emphasizes cultural sensitivity and awareness to enhance the counseling relationship.
  • Diagnostic Classification Systems: Studies standardized systems like the DSM-5 used to diagnose mental health disorders. Focuses on understanding and applying diagnostic criteria in a clinical setting.
  • Family Systems: Examines the theories and models related to how family members interact and influence each other. It includes understanding the dynamics, roles, and patterns within family units.
  • Laws and Ethics of Counseling: Covers the legal and ethical standards that govern the practice of counseling. Topics include confidentiality, professional boundaries, informed consent, and ethical decision-making.
  • Psychological Theory: Provides an overview of major psychological theories that explain human behavior and mental processes. This includes theories of personality, development, cognition, and emotion.
  • Psychopathology: Focuses on the study of mental health disorders, their symptoms, causes, and treatments. It involves understanding abnormal behavior and how it is assessed and treated in therapy.
  • Psychotherapy: Teaches various therapeutic approaches used to treat mental health issues. Includes techniques from different schools of thought, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and humanistic therapy.
  • Research Methods and Data Analysis: Covers the fundamentals of conducting research in the field of counseling and therapy. Topics include research design, data collection, statistical analysis, and interpreting research findings.
  • Sex Therapy: Focuses on addressing sexual issues and dysfunctions within the context of therapy. Includes techniques to improve sexual health and intimacy in relationships.
  • Substance Abuse and Addiction: Studies the causes, effects, and treatment of substance abuse and addiction. Covers intervention strategies and the impact of addiction on individuals and families.
  • Theories of Marriage and Family Therapy: Examines various theoretical frameworks used in marriage and family therapy. Includes approaches like structural family therapy, systemic therapy, and attachment-based therapy.
  • Trauma Treatment Techniques: Teaches methods for helping clients who have experienced trauma. Includes understanding the effects of trauma and applying techniques like EMDR, trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, and somatic experiencing.

An MFT degree isn’t the only option when it comes to graduate school for couples counselors, though. Some future couples counselors choose master’s degree in counseling programs and graduate with either an MA in Mental Health Counseling or MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling before becoming licensed mental health counselors. Others pursue Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees and become clinical social workers.

Students following all the master’s program and doctoral program pathways open to couples therapists must complete one or more internships in clinical settings to fulfill licensure requirements. During these internships, they receive hands-on training from licensed therapists and have opportunities to participate in therapy sessions with actual clients in a clinical setting. They must also take and pass whatever exams their state requires of counselors, social workers, or psychologists. MFTs, for instance, take the Marriage and Family Therapy National Exam to become licensed marital family therapists.

Is the MFT degree the best option for couples therapists?

All licensed therapists are qualified to offer in-person and online marriage counseling, but marriage and family therapists have a unique advantage over other psychotherapists. They typically have two years of clinical experience, whereas many other types of counselors can begin working with only one.

MFTs are also trained not only in general psychotherapeutic practices but also in family systems. They have a deeper understanding than most other practitioners of how relationships affect people and vice versa. More importantly, they are trained to focus on relationship systems instead of who is in the right or who is in the wrong. When a couple needs help, an MFT will treat their relationship—not just each half of the couple.

What are the requirements to become a certified couples counselor?

There are very few certifications specific to couples counseling. The Certified Gottman Therapist (CGT) credential offered by the Gottman Institute is one of the few specialty designations available to couples therapists. This certification is available to licensed clinical therapists who complete three levels of training in Gottman Method couples therapy and complete an interview and observation hours. Not every couples therapist is a proponent of the Gottman Method, but many do find that the Sound Relationship House Theory developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman can help minimize conflict in relationships, improve communication, and increase intimacy, respect, and affection.

What skills are required to be a successful couples counselor?

Couples therapists tend to be:

  • Problem solvers: People don’t come to couples therapy to unload. They want answers to their questions and concrete strategies they can use to overcome obstacles in their relationships. Couples counselors have to be ready to help people heal their relationships.
  • Relationship builders: Trust is hugely important in couples counseling because each person involved must believe that the therapist they’re working with isn’t biased against them. Couples counselors have to be able to build trusting relationships with their clients.
  • Good listeners: Like all therapists, couples counselors need to have well-developed listening skills and the ability to hear what’s not being said out loud.
  • Culturally sensitive: Different cultures can have very different ideas about what constitutes a healthy marriage and love relationship. Couples therapists must be respectful of people regardless of their ethnicity, culture, gender, nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

How long does it take to become a couples therapist?

Earning a bachelor’s degree in counseling or psychology typically takes four years. Most marriage and family therapist master’s degree programs and graduate-level clinical counseling programs take two years of full-time study to complete. Earning a doctorate in psychology degree takes at least three years.

After graduating from an advanced degree program, aspiring couples therapists must complete one or two years of supervised clinical work. Studying for—and then taking—whatever state licensing exam is required to practice independently can take a few months. Add it all up, and becoming a couples therapist can take six years or more.

What career paths can you take in couples therapy?

Couples therapist is its own career path in mental health counseling. MFTs, licensed clinical counselors, social work counselors, and clinical psychologists can all open private practices focused on marriage counseling. They can also work in:

  • Family services
  • Government
  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient mental health centers
  • Schools
  • Social service agencies
  • Substance abuse centers

What is the salary for a certified couples counselor?

It’s tough to nail down an average couples therapist salary because the counselors who work with couples go by many titles. A marriage and family therapist, for instance, might earn anywhere between $40,000 and $79,000. According to ZipRecruiter, however, the average marriage counselor earns $131,000.

Whether a therapist earns closer to $40,000 or in the six-figure range may depend on what degree they choose (clinical psychologists tend to earn more than social workers) or where they work (a marriage counselor in Provo, Utah could make $90,000 or more).

Is couples therapy a good career?

This is a great career path for anyone interested in the many ways relationships impact mental health and vice versa. It’s also an excellent choice for people who want to work in a psychotherapeutic field that’s results-driven. However, before deciding to become a couples therapist, you should know that this job is extremely stressful.

“It’s widely acknowledged that couples therapy is the most challenging,” Richard Simon, editor of the Psychotherapy Networker, told the New York Times. “The stakes are high. You’re dealing with volatility. There are often secrets… You often feel confused, at odds with at least one of your patients, out of control.”

To succeed in this career, you have to be comfortable with the idea of spending your days willingly standing in the crossfire between people who are not just unable to see eye-to-eye but have reached a point where they’re actively refusing to do so. Not everyone is capable of doing that, day in and day out. If you can handle the pressure and the intensity, however, you’ll thrive in your work and help the couples you care for do the same in their relationships.

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About the Editor

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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