How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

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Marriage and family therapists help couples – married or not – and families with children deal with conflicts that could destroy relationships if left unaddressed.

The profession can be emotionally and mentally challenging. You’ll be exposed to the deepest, and in some cases the darkest, secrets that exist inside a family’s home. Infidelity. Financial problems. Communication problems. Substance abuse issues. Disagreements on parenting styles. These are just some of the problems people bring to the office of a marriage and family therapist.

how to become a family therapist

The point here is not to seem discouraging, but to recognize the challenges you’re likely to face as a therapist. Knowing this, you’re better prepared to help people restore their relationships, save their marriages and come together again as happy, loving families. Few professions offer comparable rewards.

Plus, you can make a good living as a marriage and family therapist, especially by launching your own private practice after gaining several years of experience.

In this article you’ll learn:

  • How much money you can make as a marriage and family therapist
  • The required training and certifications
  • Professional groups to join
  • Employment opportunities for a marriage and family therapist
  • Finding clients
  • Plus helpful tips

How much money can you make?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) current Occupational Outlook Handbook notes the average national annual salary for marriage and family therapists is $49,610. Over the next 8 years employment opportunities in the field are expected to increase 22 percent, which is well above the national average for job growth.

Salaries across the country vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors, including whether the therapist is self-employed and running a private practice.

Training and Certification

A bachelor’s and master’s degree are the fundamental education requirements for becoming a marriage and family therapist.

training and certification as family therapist

You’ll want to take courses in the fundamentals of counseling, human development, interpersonal relationships, social sciences and research methodology, all of which are customarily found in psychology programs.

When choosing a master’s degree program, make sure it is accredited by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, which sets national standards of knowledge, conduct and ethics for therapists in the field.

What you’ll learn:

  • Couples therapy
  • Human sexuality
  • Developmental science
  • Domestic violence psychology
  • Young adult behavior
  • Fundamental methods of research

You’ll also learn in a clinical setting, observing trained therapists at work and occasionally assisting them.

professional groups as family therapist

All U.S. states now require marriage and family therapists to complete two years of clinical experience. You can obtain this experience by volunteering or working for any organization that provides mental health services. A licensed marriage and family therapist, psychologist, or social worker will supervise your work during this phase.

At last, you’re ready for licensure. Some states use their own exam, while others use the Examination in Marital and Family Therapy, which is given by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. The licensing exam is a four-hour, multiple-choice test to evaluate your knowledge of client diagnosis, ethical standards, and the development of treatment interventions in marriage and family therapies.

Your license to practice is typically good for two years, then you’ll need to renew. The renewal process involves completion of a certain number of continuing education credits. Each state specifies its approved workshops, courses, or online training.

You can check the marriage and family therapist licensure requirements for your state here.

Professional Groups to Join

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy is the premiere organization for professionals in the field. Annual membership is $216 plus a $25 application fee. Benefits of joining include extensive continuing education programming plus a listing on the association’s referral webpage, which can help you get more clients. Networking with other professionals in your field is another reason to join.

Here are additional professional groups to consider:

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC)IAMFC

National Council on Family RelationsNCFRInternational Family Therapy AssociationIFTAAmerican Family Therapy AcademyAFTA


You can find job openings for marriage and family therapists at private mental health facilities and state and local government health departments.

Don’t overlook online job-search sites like SimplyHired and ZipRecruiter, where you can often harvest a number of job leads quickly. Just keep in mind that if you plan on moving to a new state you’ll have to become licensed to practice therapy in that state.

Finding Clients

If you’re running your own private practice, it’s up to you to find clients.

Because of the broad spectrum of counseling services a psychotherapist can offer, focusing on a specialty can help you build your book of business rather than trying to serve everyone. While it might seem counterintuitive to concentrate on a niche, when you identify the specialty that most interests you then you will be able to find the ideal clients for your practice. The work then becomes more enjoyable.

Use your memberships in professional organizations to build a social network. Connecting with other professionals enables you to share marketing tips and ideas.

Many professional organizations also offer online directories of their members so potential clients can find a marriage and family therapist in their area. If directories are available, be sure your practice is listed.

finding clients as family therapist

Let other professionals in the community know you’re available for referrals. Clergy, doctors, and even other therapists (who may have full caseloads) can be a good source of referrals.

You’ll also need an attractive website with good content. List your business name, address, city and state and phone number on every page at the top. Over time, search engines such as Google will recognize your website as a match for people searching for a therapist in a specific city. Run a search for “psychotherapists” and the name of your city, then check the results. See who’s listed at the top, then visit their websites to determine what they’re doing. If they’re coming up at the top of search results (but not in a paid advertisement), whatever they’re doing, it’s working.

It’s okay to highlight your achievements and education – and you should, because this establishes your credentials – but the website shouldn’t be all about you.

If you accept insurance, say so on your website. If you don’t, make it clear that clients are responsible for services (or you can go over your fees during an initial consultation).

All your marketing materials and website should include a clear call to action, to get people to do what you want them to do, which is get in touch with you. Here’s one approach for a call to action: “Contact me today. I can help.”

At some point in your private practice you’ll want to decide whether to accept insurance. Some therapists do, others do not. There are tradeoffs with either decision. By accepting insurance, you are likely going to increase the pool of available clients you can service. On the downside, you may have to accept a lower fee for insurance companies to work with you. Plus, there’s paperwork.

things to know as family therapist

Therapists who do not accept insurance often find they’re working with clients who are more serious about doing therapy to heal themselves, since they are paying for services themselves. Another advantage is the therapist gets paid on the spot; there’s no waiting for an insurance company to cut a check.

Good to know:

Online Psychology Degrees recommends these 5 tips for students studying to become marriage and family therapists:

Be an active participant in class.

The more questions you can ask, the stronger your analytical thinking will become. This is an important trait for a therapist.

Join a study group.

For marriage and family therapy students, a study group can relieve stress while allowing you to interact outside the classroom with students who share a common passion. As a rule of thumb, devote 2 hours to study group for every hour of class time.

Maintain your balance and work on self-care.

Interns are more vulnerable to stress as a consequence of working long hours on challenging cases. If you feel your caseload is too large, talk to your supervisor about reducing the number of clients. Meanwhile, exercise and meditate, practice healthy eating, perhaps do deep breathing exercises and yoga, and spend time with family and friends. Balance study and work with socializing and recreation.

Work on your writing skills.

Psychological Science shows that high-quality written communication is vital in both psychology education and employment. The American Psychological Association cites effective writing as one of the primary goals of the educational curriculum. As a suggestion, take a course in journal or grant writing.

Join a professional organization.

Professional memberships are a valuable networking resource. You’ll also enjoy continuing education while staying up-to-date in your field. Memberships also impress employers who will see you are dedicated to your profession. If you join while still a student, many professional groups offer a discount.

If you enjoyed this article, check out some more great content that can help you grow your career as a marriage and family therapist. Here’s a great place to start.

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