What Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Do?
Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are typically highly educated professionals with a specific skill-set that can be applied to help people in intimate and familial relationships. These therapists may treat serious clinical problems like child-parent conflicts, individual psychological problems, and depression.1
Above all, marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are trained to help couples and family groups manage conflict and emotional distress. Their unique skills are also advantageous in counseling individuals suffering from psychological issues.
How Can Marriage and Family Therapists Help?
You might be wondering what the marriage and family therapist job description is. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, MFTs are “mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems.”2 MFTs are licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders of each or every family member.
A mental health counselor who works in MFT should understand the nuances of spousal and familial relationships. By recognizing the complexities of these relationships, MFTs seek to understand the ways that an individual’s behavior interacts with family systems as a whole. The therapist's job is to improve individuals’ understanding of one another and to work through issues those individuals may suffer within their relationships through mental health counseling.3
Research shows that marriage and family therapy can be helpful, and in some cases, it may even be more effective than other treatment methods in addressing mental health issues.4
Similar to family counselors, a marriage family therapist would usually meet with their patients on a regular basis to assess and treat their issues.
Rather than providing ongoing care, some MFT therapists opt for short-term treatment. When going this route, couples, family groups, and individuals meet with therapists for 12 sessions (on average). According to the AAMFT, the majority of family units who opt for short-term therapy see improvement or resolution of their issues within 20 sessions with an MFT.
MFT treatment can involve both group and individual meetings. For example, when meeting with a married couple, a therapist might meet with the couple at the same time, and then with each spouse individually. While the breakdown of sessions can vary based on practitioner and patient preference, group sessions are often split equally with one-on-one meetings.
Who Are Marriage and Family Therapists?
Within the U.S., MFTs have a Master’s degree at minimum. They must also be licensed to practice therapy in their state.
Besides the basic requirements of a Master’s Degree and a license, MFTs also exercise these qualities when they work at their highest potential:
- Sensitivity – MFTs must listen to clients’ concerns about their relationships, including issues with divorce, separation, and child-rearing. Due to the sensitive nature of the information that patients will confide, MFTs must listen with empathy and develop trust with their patients.
- Encouragement – MFTs encourage patients to listen to one another and to develop and use skills and strategies that confront problems constructively. When family dynamics are frustrating, MFTs can be a source of positivity. When constructive coping skills prove difficult to exercise, MFTs encourage them to try again.
- Organization – MFTs should maintain confidential case files that track patients’ progress, treatment plans, and history. These can be used to remember and apply information to future therapy sessions. When juggling multiple family situations, it’s essential for MFTs to distinguish between each.
- Creativity – MFTs strive to create and apply treatment plans for each individual involved in a family or couple problem. Piecing together the dynamics of an entire couple or family can be tricky. Therapists with a creative approach can find ways to help holistically.
- Observation – MFTs should constantly collect information about patients. Through discussion, questions, and observation of body language, MFTs seek to learn as much as they can about their patients. Everything that MFTs observe is used to help their patients.
- Communication – MFTs should continuously discuss plans and goals with their patients. This involves asking questions to learn if treatment is effective for each member of a family unit. Through communication, therapists can adjust their approaches to best serve their clients. Once sessions are over, they may work with clients to continue exercising their skills outside of therapy.
How Much Do Marriage and Family Therapists Earn?
One of the questions that you may be asking as you consider a career as an MFT is: how much can I expect to earn per year?
Your income as an MFT is dependent on your degree, experience, and even the location of your workplace.
Earnings by Degree
MFTs who possess a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy may earn different salaries than those who have a PsyD, or a Doctor of Psychology. Those with advanced degrees can potentially earn more.
Besides your qualifications, your salary will depend on factors including:
- Your position – MFTs who work in clinical settings may garner different salaries than those in leadership and research positions. In some cases, a PsyD is required for leadership positions in mental health treatment centers.
- Your experience – All things considered, seasoned professionals will logically achieve higher salaries than fresh graduates. However, keep in mind that this depends on your specific role. As in most other industries, your salary might gradually increase as your career progresses.
- Your geographic location – Salaries vary across the United States. In more expensive urban centers, salaries may reflect the higher cost of living. Check the average salaries for MFTs in your state to better understand your earning potential.
For private practice business owners, earnings are dependent on the hourly rate that the practitioner sets for themself. PsyDs can often charge a higher hourly rate than MFTs with Master’s degrees because of their higher level of education.
However, the rates that private practice charges are dependent on the clients of the practice and the location of the practice.
How do therapists with private practices adjust for their clients?
- A private practice that seeks to serve underserved populations in a community may charge an hourly rate figured by an income-based sliding scale to make their services affordable for those experiencing financial difficulties.
- Private practice may decide not to accept insurance and to charge a flat hourly rate for all patients. In that scenario, clients would have to be able to afford the services out of pocket.
Where do MFTs Work?
Marital and Family Therapists can establish their own practice, as mentioned above, but they frequently work in larger healthcare settings, such as hospitals. They often work in office-style settings.
Universities that have their own health center often have counseling services for students, faculty, and staff. An MFT desiring to help the college population through their romantic relationship difficulties could seek employment at a University.
Since MFTs are also qualified for therapy with individuals, instead of couples or family groups, working in a place like a university can provide them the opportunity to exercise all of their skills. Regardless of the setting, MFTs can create a private space to discuss their issues in confidence.
MFT Sample Workday
Marriage and family therapists will often meet with new and recurring patients during a workday. They will usually complete and organize notes on their appointments. They may also manage their appointment schedule, depending on the setting that they work in. In a school setting, for example, it’s likely that their appointment schedule will be managed for them.
When they meet with new patients, they should perform an intake. An intake is an appointment when the therapist gathers basic information about their new patients. They will learn about their patients’ backgrounds and educate the patients about the services that they can expect from their therapist.5
MFTs generally also:
- Ask their patients questions during therapy sessions targeted to help patients identify their feelings and behaviors.
- Maintain confidential case files on each patient that helps them keep track of patient progress, history, and treatment plan.
- Teach couples and family members skills for conflict resolution, anger, and stress management.
- Guide families to external and essential resources such as legal counsel or medical care that would be beneficial to their mental well-being.
- Supervise and advise other therapists, assistants, and staff. MFTs may even visit their own therapist, specially trained to give therapy to therapists.
While this list covers some of the most important tasks that MFTs will carry out in their day-to-day work life, MFTs are capable of many other skills.
Pursue an MFT Education
If you’re looking for a rewarding career that helps people navigate the most important relationships in their lives, then MFT could be an excellent career choice for you.
The relationships that individuals have with their spouses, children, and other relatives can benefit from expert knowledge and care.
You can build your knowledge at Alliant International University. We offer two rigorous graduate programs in MFT that can help prepare you for a lifelong and satisfying career of helping others.
- “About Marriage and Family Therapists.” AAMFT. American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. 12/29/2022. https://www.aamft.org/About_AAMFT/About_Marriage_and_Family_Therapists…. Accessed: December 29, 2021.