Master’s in Marriage and Family Couseling

There’s a old joke that the concept of marriage and family counseling began shortly after Eve handed Adam the proverbial apple in the Garden of Eden. In other words, the need for counseling that targets the unique interpersonal dynamics and often complicated emotional, behavioral, and psychological stresses of family life is very likely as old as the institution of marriage itself. What’s changed over time is the body of knowledge available to professional marriage and family counselors, and the effectiveness of the training programs that prepare aspiring practitioners for a career in the field of marriage and family counseling.

Like other areas within the larger field of professional counseling, marriage and family therapy requires a clear competency in the psychological theories and practices that relate to human behavior, an ability to use that base of knowledge in a clinical psychotherapeutic setting, and well-honed interpersonal communications skills. In addition, marriage and family counseling involves cultivating a deeper, solution-based understanding of the particular problems that develop between couples and within the family structure. A master’s degree in marriage and family counseling is designed to impart these skills and practices. As we’ll see, it also offers the clearest and most direct path to the licensing that is required in every state for the professional practice of marriage and family therapy.

Master’s in Marriage and Family Counseling Concepts

  • Family systems theories
  • Techniques of psychotherapy
  • Diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders
  • Analyze problems within family systems
  • Human development and behavior
  • Research methodology
  • Principles of psychopathology
  • Foundations of addictive and compulsive behavior
  • Theories of personality development
  • Professional ethics and codes of conduct for counselors and therapists
  • Group and individual counseling methodologies
  • Career development and life planning
  • Multicultural issues in counseling
  • Human sexuality
  • Child and adolescent counseling

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Marriage and Family Counseling

There are a number of areas of specialization within the field of counseling, including mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, and school and vocational counseling. Marriage and family counseling or therapy, as it is often called, has its own set of concerns and parameters that center around the interactions between couples, parents and their children, and other family units. As the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) points out, “In marriage and family therapy, the unit of treatment isn’t just the person — even if only a single person is interviewed — it is the set of relationships in which the person is embedded.”

So, while marriage and family therapists see patients with many of the same issues that other counseling specialists encounter — from mood disorders like anxiety and depression, to behavior problems like alcoholism and substance abuse — the treatment they offer takes into account larger family dynamics. Master’s degree programs in marriage and family counseling are tailored to these concerns, to using the tools of counseling and therapy in situations that involve couples and other family members. Again, in the words of the AAMFT, “Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems.”

The AAMFT also notes that, “Since 1970 there has been a 50-fold increase in the number of marriage and family therapists.” So, as we’ll see when we delve into the Bureau of Labor Statics (BLS) data in the job outlook section below, marriage and family counseling is very much a growth sector of the economy.

What to Expect in a Marriage and Family Counseling Master’s Program

Master’s programs in marriage and family counseling are designed to be terminal degrees, which means they are intended to fully prepare students for licensure to practice as a professional MFT. Unlike psychologists, who usually need a full doctoral degree to practice professionally, marriage and family counselors, as well as most other types of counselors, qualify for initial licensure after completing a master’s degree program and some amount of supervised clinical experience.

Typically, a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling can be completed in two years, which often includes a summer of either coursework or internship experience between the first and second academic years. Because these programs focus on professional practice rather than academic research, they generally do not include a master’s thesis or dissertation requirement. Instead, master’s degrees in counseling and marriage and family therapy have built in practicum, or supervised internships that can include at least 500 hours of clinical fieldwork, much of which is face-to-face work with clients in a treatment setting.

The specific coursework and names of particular classes that form the core of a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling varies from program to program. But the chart below illustrates some of the key areas of focus that are common to all master’s programs in marriage and family therapy:

Counseling Theory and Practice

Models for psychotherapy and how they are implemented in a clinical setting

Legal, Ethical, and Professional Issues in Counseling

Confidentiality, conduct, and other best practices in the field of professional counseling

Systems Family Theory and Systems Therapy

The impact of group and family dynamics on psychology and psychotherapy

Theories of Psychopathology

The classification and diagnosis of various types of recognized mental disorders and their causes

Family Development Across the Lifespan

How psychology changes at various stages of life, and the impact this has on marriage and family relationships

Couples and Relationship Counseling

Theories and practices for counseling couples in intimate relationships

Child and Adolescent Counseling

Theories and practices for counseling children and young adults

Human Sexuality and Intimacy

The psychology of sexuality and how this impacts the dynamics of intimate relationships

Mental Health Assessment and Diagnosis

Methods for intervention and treatment of various recognized mental health issues

Communications Skills in Counseling

Professional conduct in clinical counseling settings

Chemical Dependency and Substance Abuse Counseling

Assessment and intervention in situations involving substance abuse and dependency

Community Counseling, Diversity, and At-Risk Populations

The special considerations involved in counseling in diverse communities and underserved populations

Degree Options and Specializations in Marriage and Family Counseling

Marriage and family therapy is itself a specific area of specialization in the larger realm of counseling and psychology. So, while there may be elective options available — a course in vocation counseling or school counseling, for example — further specialization generally isn’t something that’s available as part of a master’s degree program. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a master’s in family therapy, or MFT, to be part of a larger master’s program in counseling or clinical counseling. And this can get a little confusing because there are several marriage and family counseling degrees at the master’s level that are largely equivalent: The MS (master of science) in marriage and family counseling; the MA (master of arts) in marriage and family counseling; and the MFT. There are even programs that offer what’s called an MSMFT, or a master of science in marriage and family therapy. Since all of these degrees essentially carry the same weight professionally, the key is to find a program accredited by CACREP (the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs) or CORE (the Council on Rehabilitation Education) that fits your professional goals.

Careers in Marriage and Family Counseling

The typical career path for students who graduate with a master’s in marriage and family counseling is getting licensed and going into practice as a marriage and family counselor. No surprise there. The good news is that the BLS Occupation Outlook Handbook projects a 19 percent increase in employment for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists through the year 2024, which is significantly better than the national average for all occupations combined (7 percent). Of the roughly 33,700 licensed marriage and family therapists, or MFTs, that were part of the BLS data set in 2014, 30 percent worked in family services, 23 percent worked for state and local government agencies, 15 percent worked in outpatient care centers, and 14 percent were employed in residential care facilities and the offices of other health service providers. The BLS also notes that a significant number of marriage and family therapists work in private practice.

In addition to benefiting from a growing demand for counseling services, marriage and family therapists are compensated quite well. The latest numbers from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics pegs the median annual salary for marriage and family therapists at $48,040 as of May 2014, with those in the 90th percentile earning $78,920 or more. The chart below uses BLS data from the same year to compare marriage and family therapists with similar occupations:

OccupationMedian Annual SalaryProjected Job Growth through 2024
Marriage and Family Therapists$48,04015%
Mental Health Counselors$40,85020%
Social Workers$45,50012%
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors$39,27022%
School and Career Counselors$53,3798%

Licensing for Marriage and Family Therapists

Every state requires counselors and marriage and family therapists to be licensed. However, the requirements for licensure vary from state to state, and there are essentially two different kinds of licenses available. The general requirement is a master’s degree plus up to two years, or 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience in the field. There are then two ways to become licensed: marriage and family therapy licensure is governed by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards, which oversees the exam LMFTs (licensed marriage and family therapists) must pass; while the National Board for Certified Counselors oversees the exam that states use for the general licensing of professional counselors (LPCs). Technically, both qualify an individual to practice professionally as a counselor in most settings, but LMFT licensure is often preferable for those who specialize in marriage and family therapy.

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