According to the American Psychological Association, the divorce rate in the U.S. stands at between 40 and 50 percent. That may come as little surprise to those who have been following the divorce rate for any length of time. But, in an article written by University of Michigan Economics Professor Justin Wolfers for the New York Times, a good case is made for the fact that the American divorce rate may indeed be falling. According to Wolfers’ analysis, the rate peaked in 1981, at 5.3 divorces per thousand people, and has since fallen to 3.6 in 2011.
That may be good news, but it doesn’t dispel the notion that marital and familial discord is simply a fact of life. Just ask any of the Kardashians. Or, talk to a marriage and family therapist. Marriage counselors and family therapists exist as a clearly delineated subspecialty in the larger realm of counseling and social services precisely because divorces and other kinds of family problems are complicated, difficult, and require a unique set of skills to assess and address. Marriage and family therapists are counselors who study marital and familiar dynamics and learn how to apply specialized techniques to pinpoint problems, suggest solutions, and resolve disputes. They may not be able to keep every family together, but if Wolfers’ analytics are right, then perhaps it’s working.
Steps to Becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist
Because marriage and family therapists work in sensitive one-on-one, one-on-couple, or one-on-family situations with clients who are dealing with highly personal issues, and who often require assurances of confidentiality, most states require practitioners to be licensed. And licensure generally requires the completion of a master’s degree in marriage counseling, or another field related to psychosocial development and treatment. We’ll get into the details of various degree options and the requirements for a marriage and family therapist license. But first, here’s a straightforward look at the steps to starting a career in marriage and family counseling:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited four-year college or university
- Find and enroll in a master’s degree program in marriage and family therapy/counseling
- Begin working toward the 2000-4000 hours of supervised clinical experience necessary for licensure, and apply for a provisional license in states where available
- Obtain a state license to practice as a marriage and family therapist
What Do Marriage and Family Therapists Do?
Like psychologists, social workers, and other types of mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists work with people to solve personal problems. The main difference, and this primarily impacts what marriage and family therapists study in school and in supervised work situations, is that instead of dealing with emotions and behaviors between one individual and his or her relation to a social group, marriage and family counselors have to take into account the dynamic interplay between two or more people in a relationship. Nevertheless, there are enough similarities to mental health counseling that the Bureau of Labor Statistics pairs the two professions in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, stating that, “Mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists help people manage and overcome mental and emotional disorders and problems with their family and relationships. They listen to clients and ask questions, to help the clients understand their problems and develop strategies to improve their lives.”
The BLS goes on to detail that, “Mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists work in variety of settings, such as mental health centers, substance abuse treatment centers, hospitals, and colleges. They also work in private practice and in Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which are mental health programs that some employers provide, to help employees deal with personal problems.” But, actual BLS data gives a clearer picture of how marriage and family therapists are most typically employed, as the chart of job distribution below illustrates:
|Individual and family services||25%|
|Outpatient care centers||24%|
|Offices of health practitioners||8%|
|Nursing and residential care facilities||5%|
As with any counseling profession, marriage and family therapy demands compassion, as well as finely tuned communications, listening, and interpersonal skills.
What Education Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Need?
As noted earlier, the first step on the path to becoming a marriage and family therapist is the completion of a four-year bachelor’s degree. It isn’t necessary to major in counseling or even a related field in the social sciences, as that’s not a prerequisite for admission to a master’s program. However, anyone interested in potentially pursuing a career in any kind of counseling would be wise to test the water with classes in psychology and sociology, both of which contain the building blocks for marriage and family therapy.
Most of the core training in marriage and family counseling takes place at the master’s degree level. This is where you’ll acquire the skills and training unique not just to counseling, but to working with couples and families in crisis, as well as with children and adolescents. A typical master’s degree in marriage and family counseling includes coursework in psychological assessment, human psychosocial development, laws and ethics of counseling, group and family counseling strategies, human sexuality, couples counseling, and psychotherapy with children and adolescents.
Working in counseling can be stressful and complicated; it requires patience, an even temperament, and well-honed problem solving strategies. Some of this can be learned in the classroom, but much of it has to develop naturally in supervised work training. In recognition of that, the best marriage and family therapy master’s degree programs include a practicum or internship of some kind. This is also a good way to begin working toward the 2000-4000 hours of supervised training necessary for licensure in most states.
Getting Licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist
As with licensing in any kind of counseling, the requirements for a marriage and family therapist license vary from state to state. However, the general guidelines are fairly simple: A master’s degree in counseling or a related field like psychology or social work, along with at least 2000 hours of supervised work experience in the area of specialization is typically enough to qualify for the licensure exam. The standard exam used for licensure in counseling is a 200-item multiple-choice test known as the National Counseling Exam. In addition, marriage and family therapists may benefit from earning board certification through the National Board of Certified Counselors’ National Certified Counselor exam. More information on this and other continuing education opportunities for counselors is available at the NBCC website. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy is also a good resource for further information about the profession.
Job Outlook and Salaries for Marriage and Family Therapists
While divorce rates may be on the decline, the demand for marriage and family therapists clearly on the rise, according to the latest data from the BLS, which projects a much higher than average growth of 22 percent in employment through 2029. To put that number in perspective, employment for mental health counselors is expected to rise by slightly high, at 25 percent, and the average for all occupations is around 11 percent.
The primary reason for this rosy outlook isn’t that families and couples are experiencing more problems, but that more health insurers now cover counseling services. And, the expansion in the healthcare industry means that more people, including families and married couples, now have full health insurance coverage.
According to the latest BLS Occupational Employment Statistics report, the average annual salary for marriage and family therapists was $51,340 as of May 2020. The top 10 percentile of those employed in this specialization earned an average annual salary of $92,930, while the lowest 10 percentile earned an average of $33,140.