The field of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) is a mental health specialty utilizing talk-based psychotherapy/counseling interventions informed by a systems approach. While talk therapy is certainly not unique to MFT in a broad sense, MFT is distinguishable from other mental health fields because it is born out of systems theory. Although there are a variety of clinical theories that may be used in MFT clinical practice, MFT training and philosophy always centers relational systems and views individuals in the context of those systems. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy describes MFT treatments as brief, specific, and solution-focused, and states that in MFT “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.” Note that while some psychologists and some counselors may focus on treatments with couples or families, MFT is its own distinct field with unique training and licensure pathways.
Marriage and Family Therapy as a career is a great fit for people who think systemically. This means thinking about how individuals, couples, and families function within larger systems, and how things like interdependence and feedback loops might help or harm individual and relational functioning. While other treatment models may emphasize individual factors (e.g., focusing upon thought patterns in cognitive therapies as is popular in clinical psychology) or broader cultural factors (e.g., focusing upon addressing systemic oppression as is popular in social work), the MFT field highlights the systems of close personal relationships as being crucial to mental health.
Most Marriage and Family Therapists work in mental health clinics or private practices (hired as part of a group or joining individually as contractors). However, some do work in other settings such as schools or non-profit organizations. While most do not work in hospital settings, there is a growing sub-field of Medical Family Therapy which does indeed prepare therapists for more medically-oriented settings. Importantly, MFT clinicians do not work exclusively with couples and families–many have caseloads consisting almost entirely of individual clients–but they always keep in mind a framework emphasizing dynamics in key relationships.
Degree: In order to become a Marriage and Family Therapist, one needs to have earned a Master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.) in Marriage and Family Therapy. A Bachelor’s degree would be the first step (with typical choices of major including Psychology, Social Work, or Human Development and Family Studies), after which point one could pursue graduate school.
License: To practice in the state of Michigan, one needs to pursue licensure through Michigan’s office of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). For details, explore the LARA pages for the Michigan Board of Marriage and Family Therapy. The requirements include graduating from a COAMFTE-accredited graduate program, passing the National Marital and Family Therapy Examination, and accumulating at least 300 hours of supervised direct client contact during graduate school and at least 1,000 hours of supervised direct client contact after graduation. Once licensed, the customary title in Michigan is “Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist,” typically abbreviated “LMFT” after a clinician’s name. Doctoral degrees in family/couple studies do also exist, but for clinicians the master’s degree is far more common (i.e., the doctorate is typically for those pursuing research/academic careers in training future LMFTs).
Training: Graduate programs in MFT are located all around the country and internationally, including some in Michigan such as the programs at MSU and WMU. Keep in mind that one need not attend graduate school in Michigan to eventually build a career here–and time spent in other local cultures can help better prepare future clinicians for working with a diverse caseload.
Most people drawn to Marriage and Family Therapy (as opposed to other mental health disciplines) value its focus on relational systems. Although MFTs work regularly with individuals, they are uniquely trained in working with couples, families, and other close relationships. Many MFTs find great joy in helping not just one person at a time, but entire relational systems overcome individual mental health challenges, improve communication and intimacy, and break maladaptive generational patterns. There is a special satisfaction in seeing not only an individual change and improve, but the growth and healing of an entire relational network!
Relevant State-Level Organization
Michigan Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (MAMFT)
MAMFT Board Facebook Page
Relevant National Organization
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards
Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
Marriage & Family Therapy