How to become a licensed marriage and family therapist
Becoming a marriage and family therapist can be a great career choice for those interested in working in the mental health field that recognize the importance of relationships to our health and wellbeing. This specialty involves working with couples and families in a variety of settings.
To begin working as a marriage and family therapist requires the minimum of a master’s degree. Some graduate programs offer a degree specifically in marriage and family therapy and others offer a master’s degree in counseling with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. If you are considering a career as a marriage and family therapist, keep reading below to learn more.
Skills and traits needed to be a marriage and family therapist
Beyond the educational and legal requirements, there are personal qualities that are essential to being a marriage and family therapist. They include:
It is important to be nonjudgmental and to not place your own personal values onto clients. Perhaps you disagree with divorce or same sex relationships, or you are struggling with a relationship issue yourself. Couples counseling can often involve discussions about sex. There is a wide variety of relationships and as a marriage and family therapist you need to compartmentalize and focus on the needs of your clients. This means putting your own personal biases aside to be processed on your own time, and outside of a session.
No you don’t have to be able to do the splits to be a marriage and family therapist, although it might feel like it at times. Marriage and family therapists navigate multiple personalities and issues in a single session. It’s difficult to know what to expect when people begin to process complex issues and emotions. In addition, the priorities and focus can shift rapidly when working with a couple or family.
Families today are under unprecedented stress. The global pandemic has brought many layers of challenges and changes that impact relationship dynamics or further compound issues that were already there. It is not uncommon for clients to view their therapist similar to that of a parent or another family member. In some ways, you join the family. It can take time for patterns to unfold and sometimes clients may blame you for a perceived lack of progress or surprisingly hold you in some way responsible. Even if you are not directly involved, conflict can take center stage during couples or family work. Having the ability to remain professional and focus on their needs, including modeling healthy communication, is essential.
Empathy involves taking on the perspective of another person. It is different than sympathy or feeling bad for someone. When you take on the perspective of another, it makes the session about them and less about you. What has been helpful to you in a relationship conflict might not apply as general advice. Therapists do not give advice, rather they help model and guide clients so they develop the skills and insight they need to reach their goals. Empathy is closely linked to the other traits and is essential to the marriage and family therapy profession.
Marriage and family therapists need to have good time management and organization skills. There is copious paperwork involved especially when taking insurance. They need to have active listening skills so that each client feels heard. This is especially true for couples and family work where some clients may expect the therapist to show favoritism or take sides. They need to be able to understand complex patterns, see the bigger picture, and draw connections.
Being a marriage and family therapist is not a good fit for someone who wants to fix or save people through their relationships. It is nice to want to help others, but therapy is not about fixing. It begins with having unconditional positive regard for clients and recognizing they are not broken. It is also not a good choice for someone who is merely seeking employment. The training is quite intensive and requires you to give a lot of yourself with little recognition.
It is worth noting that training and working as a marriage and family therapist includes education about recognizing and reporting child abuse. Marriage and family therapists are mandated reporters meaning they are legally required to report suspected child abuse to the designated authorities. This does not usually include the therapist finding out what happens afterwards. It can bring up many complex feelings and it is important that you have strategies for when you need additional support as a professional.
» Read: Differences between therapists and counselors
The steps to becoming a licensed MFT
Being a licensed marriage and family therapist means that you have completed the required training and can practice independently. This is the level required to have your own private practice and to use the title Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). Licensure usually brings an increase in pay, career options, and opportunities. While your educational journey is unique, here are the general steps.
Step 1- Complete graduate school
The first step to becoming a LMFT is to find a graduate program that meets your needs. Many marriage and family therapy students have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work or related field, but other majors are also considered.
After acceptance students embark on courses such as lifespan development, counseling techniques, human sexuality, diagnosis, multicultural techniques, and theories of marriage and family therapy. Accredited programs include a clinical internship where you begin to see clients under close supervision. On average it takes 2-3 years to complete graduate school.
Step 2- State board requirements
After graduation, it is time to consult your state board requirements for the next part of your training. This varies by state, but generally includes passing the national exam and obtaining your clinical hours. It takes between 2-3 years to obtain the hours necessary for full licensure.
There are rules specific to marriage and family therapy that are different from counseling, psychology or social work. For example, the rules stipulate the type of mental health professional who can be enlisted as your clinical supervision and the number of hours you need to work with marriage and family clients.
What does “working under supervision” mean?
Within the counseling sector, working under supervision is terminology that relates specifically to the field. Although a clinical supervisor acts similar to a typical supervisor because they are someone you report to, their role incorporates other important factors. In guiding you, a clinical supervisor has a responsibility to ensure you provide the best care to your clients.
The newer you are in the role, the more involved supervision is. Your supervisor may sometimes sit in on your session, but this is not a common or ongoing expectation. More commonly, supervision commonly consists of an hour-long meeting on a weekly basis with your supervisor. They review your documentation including treatment plans and clinical notes, although the exact details of this can vary based on the agency, programs, and guidelines they follow.
Supervision time is also a place to ask questions and get input regarding your clients from someone who is more experienced. Your supervisor is there to help you, provide essential support, and to ensure all paperwork regarding the accruement of clinical hours is ready to submit to the board. Also expect supervision at your university, which is separate to the supervision on the work site.
Step 3- Applications and paperwork
Each state board has their own application with required fees. The fees associated with exams and applications can range from $150-$600. Typically a background check and recommendation letters from marriage and family therapists familiar with your work is required. You also have to send your transcripts along with your licensure application and proof of a passing exam score.
As you are working under supervision, there is documentation that you are required to maintain. You must maintain record of your clinical hours and supervision.
Step 4- Board approval
The state board verifies your education, work history, and application materials. If deemed satisfactory, you officially become a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Career outlook for marriage and family therapists
Marriage and family therapists
The need for marriage and family therapists is growing with an expected job growth rate of 16% by 2030. If you decide to open your own practice after licensure, you can expect to earn more.
District of Columbia
Projected growth (2018-2028)
What to look for in a marriage and family therapy program
There is a lot to consider when you are looking to apply to graduate school to become a marriage and family therapist. Do you want to attend classes on campus or online? Is there a certain educational approach that makes a program sound appealing to you and your goals? Will you also be working or taking care of your family?
Online, hybrid, or on-campus programs
On average it takes 2-3 years to complete graduate school. Some MFT programs utilize a fixed cohort model. This means that you and your fellow students work on the same with the goal of graduating together. Other programs offer flexible scheduling, giving the possibility to attend part time or full time.
Note that while many programs indicate that they are for working adults, this usually does not reflect when classes are available, program format, duration, or that the program is less challenging. For example, a program that offers on campus classes catering to working adults may have weekend or evening classes, or predominantly online. The academic workload for a MFT program to be accredited for licensure is the same regardless of format, so just because something is online, or the weekends, does not mean it is less work. It is important to know yourself, your resources, and your responsibilities to help decide which type of program is a good fit for you.
Without licensure, you cannot legally practice as a MFT.
The issue with licensure requirements
The MFT programs at many traditional brick and mortar universities are designed to meet the requirements for licensure for the state the university is located in. Online programs can easily meet requirements for licensure but do not always to meet the criteria for specific states.
While some programs clearly say their curriculum does not meet the licensure standards of particular states, it is crucial that you do your research before signing the enrolment documents. Check the program matches the requirements for the state you plan to work in, and if necessary seek guidance to ensure your program meets your career goals.
Without licensure, you cannot legally practice as a MFT. For example, California has some of the most rigorous standards for marriage and family therapists in the country. If you plan to practice therapy in California, but the program you graduated from does not meet their requirements you may be faced with having to take additional courses.
Consider the educational philosophy guiding the program
There are a variety of educational philosophies about adult learners and marriage and family therapy that are often reflected in the coursework offered at any given program. Some schools focus on specific research and practice-based courses. Others have an increased focus on experiential learning and expect students to do deep self-reflection as part of their education. Some programs have a more intense focus on social justice and cultural competency as part of their curriculum. These philosophies are typically listed on the school website under the section on MFT therapy curriculum and requirements.
Many students apply to more than one graduate school when seeking admission to a MFT program. The admissions process often includes an interview where you can get more information to help you decide if a program is right for you.
It is also okay, if you don’t get into your top choice graduate program for MFT. Marriage and family therapists are lifelong learners who receive intense training after graduation, along with continuing education. The future can provide numerous opportunities to seek out specific trainings that interest you.
This page was written by Rayelle Davis, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
Interview with a marriage and family therapist
Interview with a marriage and family therapist
Ana de la Cruz LMFT graduated from Nova Southeastern University with Bachelor of Science in Counseling Psychology, and a Master’s of Science in Family Therapy. She also holds a master’s level certificate from the University of Spain in applied behavioral analysis and several certifications in domestic violence prevention, crisis intervention, and suicide prevention.
I wanted to help families be happy. I always felt that the building blocks for a healthy relationship was to have a healthy example of what a relationship should be like. If I help couples now, their children will be able to have a healthy relationship in the future. Therefore, leading a healthier society from which we can all benefit from.
I went to Nova Southeastern University, where I gained the knowledge to pass the test, work with clients, and prepared me for the licensure process. But once I graduated, I had to continue on my own. Since I knew what I had to do, it was somewhat easy to follow the path.
Becoming a LMFT was a long process, and although not difficult, it took determination. You need to learn about vulnerability, both your own and your clients, so that you can empathize with clients, even when you don’t agree with them. Being an LMFT, has really challenged what I believe in and forced me to see the world through many different perspectives.
Yes, 2 years. To become an LMFT you need 1500 hours of supervision.
I work directly with couples. Most of my work is in the evenings, so during the day I do notes, I read, take care of my home and my children, and do things that bring happiness to my life. In the evenings, I see about 3 to 4 couples.
Absolutely. I began realizing what I needed to apply in my own marriage: applying knowledge is way more difficult than acquiring knowledge. Working with so many couples has opened my eyes to the things that really matter in relationships. There are no fairy tale relationships: the world of romantic movies has fooled us into believing they exist. Relationships take lots of work to build and maintain. For me, I realized that my relationship is not just about what makes me happy, but what I bring into the relationship that makes my spouse happy. It’s a constant effort of how I can be happier so I can share that with my spouse.
I enjoy being there for someone when no one else wants to be there. I love the fact that I can listen gently without having to give an immediate solution but actually guide people to find their own solution. I love it when I can say that I helped to save a marriage (or a family), especially when I am working with 2 people who need to counseling help, yet deeply love one another.
What I enjoy the least is the paperwork.
I plan to continue to work as a couple’s therapist, complete my Ph.D. and probably teach in the near future.
Do graduate schools match you with an internship site?
While some programs may offer this, it is not standard practice to be assigned a site as a marriage and family therapy intern. You have the freedom and responsibility to find your site, although advisors can help identify if the site meets the criteria of the program.
If a program is COAMFTE accredited, does that mean it meets the educational requirements for state licensure?
No. While accreditation is useful and helps to provide guidelines around the quality of the program, this does not guarantee the program meets the requirements for licensure in your state. There are some online programs that clearly say what states do not accept their program as meeting board requirements. The authority for setting the guidelines for licensure is always the state board.
Are marriage and family therapists the same as sex therapists?
No. Marriage and family therapists can choose to take additional training to become a certified sex therapist and so can other mental health professionals.
This list contains the contact information for each state board.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists
This association provides resources for marriage and family therapists.