What Is a Marriage and Family Therapist?

Family in a therapy session
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Couples and families face unique problems, which is why they often seek out help from marriage and family therapists. These professionals are trained to deal specifically with interpersonal issues that arise in individuals, couples, families, and groups.

Are interested in a career in this field? Get a better idea of what marriage and family professionals do, where they work and how much they earn in this overview of this fascinating profession.

What They Do

Marriage and family therapists assess, diagnose and treat mental illness and psychological distress within the context of the marriage and family systems. The professionals provide counseling services in several different areas including premarital counseling, relationship counseling, child counseling and separation and divorce counseling.

Some of the typical tasks that a marriage and family therapist might perform on a regular basis include:

  • Diagnosing and treating mental disorders
  • Conducting psychotherapy with individuals, couples, and families
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Helping clients develop new interpersonal communication skills
  • Collecting information about clients through self-report inventories, interviews, observations, discussions and formal assessments.

In addition to providing client services, many professionals in the field spend time marketing their services, particularly if they work in private practice. Completing paperwork and dealing with insurance companies also takes up a significant portion of a therapist's time. When working with a client, therapists need to maintain accurate case progress notes, keep a record of evaluations, and note any recommendations for further treatment.

So what makes marriage and family therapists different from other kinds of therapists? While they offer psychotherapy and attend to mental health issues, they focus more on how family dynamics impact psychological health. On a daily basis, they might deal with numerous different client issues such as self-esteem, self-harm, depression, anxiety, grief, anger, and relationship problems.

Where They Work

Family therapists work in a range of employment areas including outpatient care centers, individual and family services, local and state governments and the offices of other healthcare providers. Other common work settings include private practices, inpatient mental health facilities, schools, universities and health clinics.

Since marriage and family therapists often have to adapt to their clients' schedules, working evening and weekend hours is not uncommon.

How Much They Earn

As of May 2014, the median annual salary for marriage and family therapists was $48,040. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the highest paying industries for this profession include:

  • State government - $67,380 (median annual wage)
  • Local government - $55,260
  • Offices of other health professionals - $54,240
  • Outpatient care centers - $49,520
  • Individual and family services - $45,600

Training and Educational Requirements

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) suggests that the minimum training to become a marriage and family therapist includes a master's degree plus two years of supervised clinical experience. After completing these educational requirements, therapists must also pass state licensing exams.

In addition to the basic training and educational requirements, it is important for professionals to have the characteristics that will allow them to succeed in the job.

  • Interpersonal skills: Compassion and empathy are vital. Marriage and family therapists should be good at listening to their clients.
  • Problem-solving abilities: Marriage and family therapists need to be able to deal with complex problems and come up with effective solutions.
  • Ability to build trust: Therapists need to help their clients feel able to trust and share their innermost thoughts and feelings.
  • Organizational skills: They also need to be able to keep track of case notes and other paperwork and manage billing and insurance claims, which is why organizational abilities are essential.
  • Communication skills: Marriage and family therapists also collaborate with others including family members and healthcare professionals, so strong communication skills are a must.

Comfort with different technologies can also be helpful. Marriage and family therapists often utilize a range of technology tools including video conferencing, accounting software, multi-line telephone systems, spreadsheet software, email, and medical software.

Job Outlook

As of 2012, there were an estimated 37,800 marriage and family therapists employed in the United States. The Occupational Outlook Handbook suggests that the projected job growth for the profession will grow at a rate faster than the average through the year 2020. They project an estimated 29 percent growth between the years 2012 and 2022.

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Article Sources
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  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015). Occupational employment and wages, May 2014.