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How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

woman therapist talking with couple
Published 06/19/2020
8 minutes read
The content of this page is only for informational purposes and is not intended, expressly or by implication, as a guarantee of employment or salary, which vary based on many factors including but not limited to education, credentials, and experience. Alliant International University explicitly makes no representations or guarantees about the accuracy of the information provided by any prospective employer or any other website. Salary information available on the internet may not reflect the typical experience of Alliant graduates. Alliant does not guarantee that any graduate will be placed with a particular employer or in any specific employment position.

Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist

The expectations of what a family should look and act like has evolved over the years. The shifts are part societal, part individual. And overall, people are more open about what they want in life and less likely to shy away from open communication. When this communication is closed off, families seek guidance—and you, the aspiring marriage and family therapist, want to help.

As the stigma of seeking professional help in the face of adversity decreases, married couples and families could use some guidance from a licensed professional counselor to help them understand each other by going through a family therapy program or even mental health counseling. Going into this line of work not only positively impacts the world, but is a great career decision, as therapists continue to be in demand. Not only is the career path of a family and marriage counselor rewarding, but the annual salary is competitive with other top counseling professions.

This guide will explain how to become a marriage and family therapist and what you should look for in a master’s degree program.

To browse our different master programs offered at Alliant International University, click here

What Does it Take to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist?

Marriage and family therapists help family members communicate with one another to work through personal problems that are causing emotional distress, repair struggling relationships, navigate infidelity and divorce, and even confront addiction like alcohol and drug or substance abuse.

Before embarking on a Master’s in Marital and Family Therapy, there are some key skills and family therapy education, as well as some academic and work experience requirements, that you’ll need to have first.

Browse our website for more information on our Master’s in Marital and Family Therapy degree.

Key Skills for Handling Conflict

Usually, a therapist will see the same couple or family for anywhere from two months to one year, so you will become very involved in your clients’ lives. Here are some skills that a professional counselor should have in order to be prepared to handle interpersonal conflict:

  • Good at listening and creating a safe space enabling others to open up
  • Thinking critically without assigning judgement
  • Empathy-based problem-solving 
  • Communicating clearly
  • Showing patience and compassion

The road to becoming a marriage and family therapist will help you develop the tools you'll need to handle stressful situations during marriage and family counseling. It will also teach you the technical skills about how to use the medical software you'll need to manage your cases and client data.

Prior Education and Work Experience

The path to getting your master’s degree starts with having an undergraduate degree and work experience. Here are the initial steps of how to become a marriage and family therapist:

  • Bachelor’s degree – Most master’s programs accept applicants with any major as long as all prerequisite courses have been completed. While the requirements differ depending on the master’s program, these courses usually fall under the realm of psychology or social sciences, in areas like human development, research methods, and fundamentals of counseling.
  • Work experience – Many schools don’t require hands-on field work or practical work experiences, but having supervised experience will help you be prepared for graduate school, and make you stand out amongst other applicants.

Becoming a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist 

In order to become a licensed marriage and family therapist, you have to get a master's degree, complete clinical experience, and pass a licensing exam. Many of the specific requirements for clinical and licensure vary from state to state, but these are still major steps that you need to take to become a practicing therapist or family counselor, no matter where you live in the US.

Step One: Master’s Degree

Marriage and family therapists need at least a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy, or another master’s degree in a similar field, like psychology. Here are some topics you can expect to cover during your studies:

  • Developmental science
  • Human sexuality
  • Couples therapy
  • Methods of research
  • Parent and child conflict
  • Children’s behavioral issues
  • Mental health struggles and how it impacts others
  • Addictive tendencies

These courses will typically take two to three years to complete, studying full-time. Learning about these topics, and having the opportunity to study them more deeply through research activities offered by faculty members, will help you identify a specialization, if it’s offered, or find an area of interest you want to focus your work on.

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Step Two: Clinical Experience

After obtaining your master's degree through the MFT program, all states typically require two years of clinical experience. This can be completed through volunteer work or by becoming an employee at a charitable organization, nonprofit organization, college or university, private clinical practice, or other approved business and organizations that provide mental health services.

Your clinical experience must be supervised by a licensed marriage and family therapist, psychologist, or social worker. Depending on your state requirements, this could be anywhere from 1,500 hours to 4,000 hours of work, according to the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB).

Step Three: Licensing Exam

Once you’ve finished the required clinical experience for your state, or are getting close to completion, you will need to take your state’s licensing exam. Some states have their own exam, while others use the Examination in Marital and Family Therapy, which is administered by AMFTRB. While the idea of a big exam can be daunting, between your master’s coursework and clinical experience, you’ll be totally prepared.

Here is what a typical exam will look like:

  • You’ll be given four hours to complete the exam
  • There will be 180 questions
  • All answers are multiple-choice

The exam will test you on the following six domains, which have been created by AMFTRB:

  1. The practice of systemic therapy
  2. Assessing, hypothesizing, and diagnosing
  3. Designing and conducting treatment
  4. Evaluating ongoing process and terminating treatment
  5. Managing crisis situations
  6. Maintaining ethical, legal, and professional standards

Licensing Exam Process

Even if you don’t pass the exam the first time, you’ll be able to study again and retake it after a few months—some states only allow one retake in a 12-month period, but others allow more. Here are the steps to taking the licensing exam:

  1. Apply to your state or jurisdiction board indicating that you’d like to take the exam
  2. You will receive a letter of eligibility with an approval code that you’ll use to complete the online application and pay the exam fee of $365
  3. Within six weeks, you will receive an email from the Professional Testing Corporation (PTC) with a Candidate ID number and Scheduling Authorization
  4. Using the Scheduling Authorization instructions, you will schedule your exam time
  5. You sit for the licensing exam
  6. Around 20 days after you take the exam, PTC will report your scores to both you and your state board 

After passing your licensing exam, you'll be able to start practicing as a marriage and family therapist, working at mental health centers, hospitals, treatment centers, government institutions, or private clinical practices.

What to Look for in a Master’s Program

Understanding the steps of how to become a marriage and family therapist is important, but choosing the right program for you matters just as much. These are the things you should look for when choosing your family and marriage counseling program, and why:

  • Accreditation – Choosing an accredited program is crucial. You want to go to a school that has a good reputation and will adequately prepare you for your clinical experience and state licensing exam.
  • A program that fits your schedule – There are both online and in-person master's in marriage and family therapy programs, so search for a MFT program that fits your schedule and aligns with the way you like to study.
  • Hands-on training – Work experience while you’re pursuing your master’s degree can count toward your clinical hours, so you’ll want to start chipping away at the hours while you’re still in school if you can.
  • Specialization tracks – If there's a certain topic you're interested in having be the focal point of your MFT degree, you should try to find a school that offers a specialization in that area.
  • Financial aid – School can be expensive, so choosing an affordable option, or a program that has financial aid opportunities, or both, is a good idea.

MA in Marital and Family Therapy From Alliant International University

At Alliant International University, you can get a COAMFTE-accredited Master of Arts in Marital and Family Therapy, offered by the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP), in as little as two years. This forward-thinking, inclusive program prioritizes cultural competency and representation, and has generous scholarship opportunities.

While Alliant is proud to be one of only a small group of on-campus COAMFTE-accredited marital and family therapy programs in the state of California, the program is also offered fully online - one of only a few COAMFTE-accredited programs of its kind in the entire country. You can also focus on your interests, such as the Chemical Dependency specialization track, where students work with individuals and families struggling with addiction and substance abuse.

Make an Impact with a Long-Lasting Career

Being a marriage and family therapist is a fulfilling career path that changes people’s lives, and one that isn’t going anywhere. 

Awareness of the importance of a strong, loving marriage and family unit and the desire to mend relationships and communicate openly means more people are seeking guidance from a licensed professional counselor.

If you’re ready to be that glue for others, contact Alliant International University and start your journey toward a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy.

Call Today


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