Navigating relational issues can be a challenging task. The family system and its dynamics are incredibly complex, as unique personalities come together, each bringing their own perspectives, circumstances, and issues. Occasionally, the outside help of a marriage family counselor is needed to unite these personalities and give clarity to situations-and that's where a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) can offer help.
What Is A Marriage And Family Therapist?
An MFT therapist is a licensed marriage counselor as well as behavioral science and mental health professional that generally receives training in both psychotherapy and family systems. A licensed marriage and family therapist typically has a background in clinical psychology or social work before undergoing extensive family therapy education in understanding how family systems work. After completing a marriage family therapy degree program and other related educational programs, MFTs must pass a licensure exam.
Marriage and family therapist's work with families and married couples, helping them reconcile differences, overcome difficult situations or deal with mental or emotional issues. Yet the day-to-day activities of a marriage family therapist can hardly be boiled down to such a short overview. Let's take a more in-depth look at the functions of an MFT, and see the top 4 ways they impact lives and family units on a daily basis.
Diagnosing Psychological Disorders
If one family member is experiencing psychological distress, all the members within the family can be affected. Depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems can slowly chip away at an individual's emotional health while causing rifts in familial relationships. A marriage family therapist is trained to recognize, diagnose, and address psychological disorders through family counseling so that healing can begin both within the individual and in the family as a whole.
Assisting in Difficult Circumstances
When families face difficult situations like divorce, job loss, illness, or death of a loved one, the MFT is a professional counselor trained to help them cope and navigate through the struggle. These life changes can place a great deal of pressure on individuals and relationships, and it's the marriage and family therapists’ role to counsel and support families as they confront these trying times.
Many families experience conflict, albeit to varying extremes. MFTs are trained to help mediate these conflicts and provide individuals with useful communication tools in family counseling to promote reconciliation. Whether it's marital tension, mental and emotional disorders, behavioral problems in children, or anything in between, a marriage and family therapist brings their insight and impartiality to bear on the situation at hand, provoking thought, discussion, and positive life changes.
Breaking Dysfunctional Cycles
MFTs are also trained to handle much more severe problems such as substance abuse, addiction or domestic violence. These circumstances require significant treatment, as often the safety of individuals is a concern. MFTs must quickly and accurately assess the situation, ensure the safety of their client or clients, and help develop plans to break destructive cycles.1
When MFTs work with a family, they may complete some or all of the following tasks:
- Gather information about client/s – Whether they meet with an entire family or only one family member, MFTs can benefit from gathering information about the problem or problems causing distress. They also learn more about the family dynamic to analyze how to proceed with treatment.
- Diagnose mental disorders – When one person in a family unit is struggling with their mental health, it can negatively impact everyone else. Diagnosing a mental health problem is often the first step to determining the right course of treatment.
- Develop a treatment plan – MFTs might prescribe medications, schedule mediation, or provide advice for familial relationships. Specific treatment will depend on the problem and needs of the family involved.
- Conduct sessions with individuals or the whole unit – Depending on which treatment the MFT feels will be most effective, counseling sessions might be held with one person, a couple, or an entire family unit. The goal of face-to-face sessions is to set specific, attainable, and solution-focused goals.
- Help with communication barriers – Poor communication can be a problem in any type of relationship, including within families. MFTs are trained in methods to break down communication barriers to help families move toward solutions.
Paperwork is also an important component of an MFT’s practice. MFTs must keep careful and detailed notes about every session and any recommendations made for treatment. MFTs must also complete necessary insurance and billing paperwork.
Where Do MFTs Work?
Marriage and family therapists might work in many different settings. Some of these include:
- In private practices
- Through a state or federal government program
- In schools or universities
- At mental health facilities
- In hospitals
- In veteran’s affairs facilities
- At clinics
Some MFTs may begin their career working in another facility before transitioning to private practice. This can allow them time to gain experience and clients before attempting to go out on their own.
Which Skills Are Important for MFTs?
If you’re considering a career as an MFT, several skills may help increase your success. Among these are:
- Ability to make sound decisions quickly – Family problems are often complex and, in some cases, can present danger to one or more family members. It can be helpful to make quick, effective decisions that put the safety of your clients first at all times. Your decision-making can be a life or death situation when working with domestic violence, depression, addiction, and other serious problems within a family unit.
- Effective critical thinking skills – MFTs may need to play detective at times. This means being able to ask the right questions to figure out what a family’s problem is and what they need to do to resolve it. Furthermore, since your work involves not just one person but a group, understanding the dynamics of that group is critical to designing workable solutions.
- Top-level communication abilities – You cannot help others develop better communication skills if your own are poor. Speaking clearly, writing effectively, and listening well are all beneficial skills for a good MFT.
- Excellent listening skills – A large part of an MFT’s job is to listen and learn what a family needs. If you can’t listen well, you may not be able to get to the root of the problem plaguing your client and help them work through a solution.
- Strong ethics and judgment – Part of your education as an MFT involves learning the ethical and legal practices required of the profession. The ability to use your judgment to make ethically sound and legal recommendations in your practice is therefore important.
- Organizational skills – Paperwork is a big part of a career as an MFT. It’s helpful to keep careful records of client notes, billing, and insurance claims to run a successful practice. Without strong organizational skills, you may not be able to effectively treat your clients.
- Ability to build trust – Lastly, it’s beneficial for MFTs to build trust with clients. If you aren’t honest, open, and trustworthy, your clients likely won’t be willing to open up. In contrast, if you’re able to get your clients to trust you, they’re more likely to be open to working through the problems they face.
The biggest takeaway is that a good MFT can be trusted to be ethical, make solid decisions, and act in the best interest of their clients’ safety.
How to become an MFT
If you’re interested in a career as a marriage family therapist, you might be wondering, what is an MFT therapist degree like? The work required to become a family and licensed professional counselor in the area of marriage family therapy can be broken into three phases:
Your exact path in family counseling might look a little different depending on your background, therapy education, clinical experience, and where you live. In general, you must complete some form of each of these steps.
Step 1: Required Education
A marriage and family therapy degree will train you to handle the various situations that you may face, giving you insight into the most effective family therapy activities, methodologies, and up-to-date industry information.7 An online MFT program or family therapy program is also a valuable option for candidates who want to fulfill their goals and make an impact in a more flexible environment.
Typically, to enroll in an MFT program, you must have already completed a bachelor’s degree program. MFT programs are usually one of three levels:
- Post-graduate certification
Along with a bachelor’s degree, you may need to take the GRE or complete other entrance requirements to be admitted to the school of your choice. This is the same regardless of whether you choose MFT vs MSW.
Once you get in, you’ll spend approximately two years or more attending classes. The exact length of time it takes to complete the coursework required for your MFT degree depends on whether you attend school full or part-time. Regardless of your enrollment status in a family therapy program, your curriculum will likely involve coursework in the following2:
- Conducting research
- Ethical and legal considerations
- Diagnosis and treatment
- Diverse communities and families
- Clinical practice
- Basic and advanced theoretical concepts
One thing you must do before you enroll in an MFT program is to make sure it’s accredited. COAMFTE is the official accrediting board for MFT educational programs. Attending a school that’s accredited helps ensure you’re being taught the right way by a respected institution.
Step 2: Supervised Clinical Work
Once you’ve completed your classroom requirements, you can practice your skills with clients. Depending on where you live, you must complete somewhere between 1,500 to 4,000 hours of client-facing work before you can sit for the licensure exam. Some of this work must be supervised by a licensed MFT. Each state has a different requirement for both clinical hours and supervision.
Step 3: Licensure
Typically, the last step to completing your MFT credentials and becoming an MFT is to complete the licensing exam. The exam changes regularly, as does the score required for licensure. You’ll need to check the most up-to-date information before you take the exam.
Bonus Step 4: CEUs
Because the field of clinical mental health counseling and therapy is constantly evolving, so too must your skills. Once you’ve received your MFT license, it isn’t good forever. Instead, you must renew it regularly. Most states require a renewal every 2 years. To renew your license, you’ll likely need to complete continuing education units (CEUs). Some examples of CEUs include:
- Attending an educational conference
- Taking an online or face-to-face course
- Completing activities sponsored by an allied mental health association
Each state board has different requirements, so you’ll need to check with your state for the most current information.
If you're considering a COAMFTE accredited degree or graduate study in marriage and family therapy, learn more by contacting the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. We will provide the family therapy education and training that will help you as you pursue your dream of becoming an MFT, making an impact one family at a time.
Explore your options in marriage family therapy. Learn about our master’s program in Marital and Family Therapy and our PsyD in Marital and Family Therapy degrees today!
- About Marriage and Family Therapists.” American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 2022. https://www.aamft.org/About_AAMFT/About_Marriage_and_Family_Therapists…. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- “Accreditation Standards.” Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education. January 2018. https://www.coamfte.org/documents/COAMFTE/Accreditation%20Resources/201…. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- “State Licensure Comparison,” Associate of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Board. 2018. https://amftrb.org/resources/state-licensure-comparison/. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- “AMFTRB State Continuing Competency Chart.” Associate of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. https://amftrb.org/resources/continuing-competency-chart/. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- “Therapy Topics.” American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 2022. https://aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Consumer_Updates.aspx?hkey=f0491410-…. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- Inc. Advanced Solutions International, About marriage and family therapists, accessed November 23, 2021, https://www.aamft.org/About_AAMFT/About_Marriage_and_Family_Therapists….
- “What Degree Do You Need to Become an MFT?: All Psychology Schools,” AllPsychologySchools.com, accessed November 23, 2021, https://www.allpsychologyschools.com/marriage-and-family-therapy/.