How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist: Why a Career as a Counselor Can Be Fulfilling

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A marriage and family therapist counsels a couple.Marriages and families can be complex and delicate structures that present a host of rewards and challenges. According to the American Psychological Association, 40%-50% of marriages end in divorce, and subsequent marriages face an even higher divorce rate. Fortunately, marriage and family therapists have the expertise to strengthen relationships and improve the mental health of individuals who struggle with challenges in their marriages and families.

Marriage and family therapists are in the unique position of making an enduring difference in the lives of their clients, which can be professionally fulfilling and rewarding. Individuals who have an interest in pursuing a master’s degree in counseling and are curious about how to become a marriage and family therapist can benefit from exploring common issues that arise in marriages, the specifics of what marriage and family therapists do, and the steps involved in entering the profession.

Top Reasons for Divorce

Exploring the top reasons for divorce can give prospective marriage and family therapists an introduction to the issues with which they could be working. Marriage and family therapists help clients work through these issues, either to help strengthen marriages or to help marriages end amicably.

In 2020, online divorce website It’s Over Easy analyzed multiple surveys regarding divorce and identified these top reasons for divorce:

  • Abuse (for example, domestic violence or verbal, physical or emotional abuse)
  • Alcohol or substance abuse and addiction
  • Communication issues
  • Conflict, arguing or irretrievable failure of the relationship
  • Differing values or morals
  • Distance or lack of physical intimacy
  • Infidelity
  • Insufficient commitment
  • Lack of romantic intimacy and love
  • Lack of shared interests or incompatibility
  • Marrying too young
  • Unequal carrying of the weight in the marriage

Common Marital Stressors

For individuals looking into how to become a marriage and family therapist, it also can be informative to develop an understanding of other common issues that can strain a marriage. For example:

  • Loss of a loved one. Grieving the loss of a child or other close family member can put significant stress on a marriage. As the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) has noted, strong relationships can survive and even become stronger after the loss of a child, but relationships that are already relatively weak may suffer harm that could be mitigated through therapy.
  • Financial distress. Financial distress can have devastating effects on marriages and family relationships. According to the AAMFT, financial distress also can trigger issues such as anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse.
  • The empty nest. Divorce Magazine has cited the effects of children growing up and moving out as a stressor that can trigger divorce. With children no longer in the home, the long-term neglect of a marriage may become more apparent, and the partners in a marriage may feel differently about their new home environment.

Marriage Milestones and the Emergence of Gray Divorce

Certain milestones in marriage place couples at higher risk of divorce. For example:

  • Fatherly, a parenting website, ranks the first two years of marriage as milestones at which the risk of divorce is high. The initial years of a marriage can be particularly challenging, and prenuptial agreements usually become effective after one year of marriage.
  • Fatherly also ranks years five through eight of marriage as milestones at which the risk of divorce is high. In those years, in particular, marriage satisfaction rates can start to decline.
  • As mentioned above, the point at which children leave the nest is a milestone at which marriages can deteriorate.

An increase in “gray divorce” (divorce among long-married couples in their 50s or 60s) also has become apparent in recent years. Kiplinger magazine cites a reduction in the stigma of divorce, longer life expectancy and the postponement of divorce until children are grown as some of the reasons behind this trend.

Marriage and Family Therapist Job Description

Individuals who are interested in how to become marriage and family therapists should become familiar with the typical marriage and family therapist job description.

Services That Marriage and Family Therapists Provide

While focusing on relationships, marriage and family therapists:

  • Diagnose and treat disorders, emotional and mental, that exist within families, couples and marriages
  • Provide psychotherapy
  • Provide group, family and couples therapy

According to the AAMFT, the therapy that marriage and family therapists provide is typically solution-focused and based on specific goals. The therapy is usually short-term (about 12 sessions).

Disorders and Issues That Marriage and Family Therapists Treat

Marriage and family therapists are trained to treat a wide variety of disorders and issues that can affect relationships. The AAMFT lists these examples:

  • Adolescent drug abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Anxiety
  • Child-parent problems
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Individual psychological problems
  • Marital distress
  • Obesity

Where Marriage and Family Therapists Practice

Marriage and family therapists can provide their services in a variety of settings. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists mental health centers, hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers, private practices and employee assistance programs as examples.

Marriage and Family Therapists’ Salary and Job Prospects

According to the BLS, the median annual salary of marriage and family therapists in 2020 was $51,340. The employment outlook for the profession is bright: The BLS projected 22% growth in jobs for marriage and family therapists from 2019 to 2029, which significantly exceeds the 4% average projected growth for all occupations.

Steps to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

Individuals who become marriage and family therapists typically follow these steps:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree. Most types of bachelor’s degrees are usually acceptable, but bachelor’s degrees in psychology or a related field can be helpful.
  • Earn a master’s or doctoral degree. The graduate degree should be in marriage and family therapy, counseling, psychology or a related field.
  • Obtain required supervised clinical experience. The required number of hours varies by state, but it’s generally in the range of 2,000 to 4,000 hours (or about one to two years).
  • Obtain state licensure. To obtain licensure, the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board notes that most states require candidates to pass the Marriage and Family Therapist National Examination. Additional state licensure requirements can vary, so becoming familiar with the specific requirements of the relevant state’s licensing board is important.

Working Toward a Career in Marriage and Family Therapy

Knowing how to become a marriage and family therapist is the first step on the journey to a fulfilling career that can allow you to make significant improvements in people’s lives. Individuals who are interested in the profession can explore Wake Forest University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program to learn how the program can set them on a course to pursue their goals. Begin your journey to a rewarding career today.

Recommended Readings

How to Become a Family Counselor

How Family Counselors Teach Communication Skills

Why Become a Family Marriage Counselor?


American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, About Marriage and Family Therapists

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Financial Distress & the Family

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Grieving the Loss of a Child

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapist: The Family-Friendly Mental Health Professionals

American Psychological Association, Marriage & Divorce

Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board, State Licensure Comparison

Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board, Your National Exam Roadmap, “The ‘Gray Divorce’ Trend: As the Gates Split Shows, More Older Couples Are Getting Divorced. Here’s Why”, “How Empty Nest Syndrome Can Lead to Divorce”

Fatherly, “A Year-by-Year Guide to Your Risk of Divorce”

It’s Over Easy, “Causes of Divorce: 13 of the Most Common Reasons”

Kiplinger, “‘Gray Divorce’ Rates Are Exploding Due to This Perfect Storm”

Psychology Today, “Why Do People Divorce?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists