What is a Marriage and Family Therapy Degree?

Marriage and family therapy (MFT) – also called couples and family therapy (CFT) – focuses on the behaviors of family members and their relationships with one another. The foundation or unit of treatment in MFT is never just the person, even if only a single person is in treatment. It is the context of the person’s life, the set of relationships in which the person is embedded.

Marriage and family therapists are mental health professionals who apply their training in psychotherapy, family systems, and relationships to help people with mental and emotional issues. These include depression, marital conflict, sexual difficulties and concerns, anxiety, chemical dependency, child-parent problems, eating disorders, obesity, dementia, and unmanageable anger, hostility, or violence. MFT students study the causes and treatments of these disorders and problems and learn to take a holistic approach to the healthcare of individuals suffering from them.

Program Options

It is important to select a marriage and family therapy program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), in order to qualify for state licensure.

Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy – Two to Three Year Duration
The master’s degree is the minimum education requirement to work as an MFT practitioner. Programs include an extensive clinical component, supervised by a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Here’s a snapshot of a typical MFT master’s curriculum:

  • Contemporary Issues in Marriage and Family Therapy – systems approach to the practice of marriage and family therapy; recovery-oriented treatment for severe mental illness, disaster and trauma response, services for victims of abuse and the homeless, foster care, case management, client advocacy, in-home and in-school services, bilingual client services, and medical family therapy (psychosocial and spiritual care to patients and families dealing with chronic illness or chronic stress and practical support to physicians and nurses treating complex illnesses and complex cases)
  • Foundations of Psychopathology – overview of psychological disorders and diagnosis of the disorders using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders affecting children, adolescents, and adults
  • Couples Counseling – examination of the theory, practice, and use of therapeutic interventions in couples counseling
  • Child-Focused Family Therapy – the special counseling needs of children and adolescents; behavioral characteristics and case studies highlighting the emotional, social, and cognitive behaviors of children and adolescents; counseling methodologies and treatment options
  • Development within the Family Life Cycle – developmental psychology throughout the lifespan, from birth through death; the impact of the developmental process on the individual and the family
  • Psychopharmacology – overview of the fundamentals of psychotropic drugs for non-medical providers; pharmacology, indications, drug interactions and adverse side effects of commonly used psychotropic medications
  • Society, Culture, and Gender: A Multi-cultural Perspective – introduction to some cultural, socioeconomic, and ethnic factors that impact the counseling relationship and process: age, gender, sexual orientation, religious and spiritual values, mental and physical characteristics, education, family values, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status
  • Research Methodology – introduction to social science/psychology research design, methods, statistics, and evaluation; developing ethical, trustworthy, and useful information
  • Group Counseling – overview of group therapy and treatments for various client populations
  • Assessments and Testing for the Marriage and Family Therapist – understanding and using testing results
  • Human Sexuality – sexuality as a key element in understanding intimate relationships; sexual development and function throughout the lifespan; sexual arousal and response, masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, and sexual anatomy; theories of sexual attraction; presentation of a clinical model of intimacy and its use in couple’s therapy
  • Substance Abuse and Recovery – causes of addiction, understanding addiction, definitions of addiction, ethno-cultural influences in addiction, substances of addiction, treatment models, family and group support, self-medication, and theories of addiction; non-substance addictive behaviors such as food compulsions, internet/gaming, shopping, and pathological gambling
  • Studies in Human Communication – the processes of communication between people and within individuals; forms of communication for counseling and psychotherapy
  • Adolescent-Focused Family Therapy – family-focused treatment targeting high-risk youth; drug use, youth crime, and drop-out prevention
  • Aging, Illness, and Long-Term Care Concerns – issues, such as long-term care, affecting the aging population; helping families deal with chronic or ongoing health concerns; understanding the challenges of the later stages of life
  • Ethics and Law for Marriage and Family Therapy – ethical and legal issues related to the marriage and family therapy profession; marriage and its legal implications, divorce, the law concerning the parent-child relationship, domestic violence, adoption, child protection, and child abuse reporting
  • Treatment of Trauma in Families – assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, rape, disaster, crime, and other trauma
  • Clinical Practicums – supervised practical training in marriage and family therapy, both in the classroom and at a placement site
  • Capstone – completion of a case assignment / clinical work focused on marriage and family therapy in preparation for licensure

Doctoral Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy – Three to Five Year Duration
The Doctoral Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy is targeted at those who wish to pursue careers as world-class researchers, educators, clinicians, and clinical supervisors. Those interested in working as clinicians typically earn a doctorate in marriage and family therapy (DMFT). Aspiring teachers and researchers tend to complete a Ph.D. in the field. Both of these doctoral programs require that applicants hold a master’s in marriage and family therapy or a related discipline.

Depending on individual career aspirations, areas of study and coursework may include:

Assessment and Treatment in Marriage and Family Therapy

  • Clinical Specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Supervised Clinical Practice
  • Ph.D. Practicum in Marriage and Family Therapy

Family Studies and Human Services

  • Family Science Theory

Supervision of Marriage and Family Therapy

  • Supervisory Roles in Educational, Medical, and Agency Settings
  • Practicum in MFT Supervision

Research Methods

  • Practicum in MFT Research
  • Qualitative Research Methods in Family Science
  • Topics in Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Dissertation Proposal
  • Ph.D. Research in Family Studies and Human Services

Degrees Similar to Marriage and Family Therapy

Behavioral Science
Behavioral science analyzes the impact of our actions and interactions on ourselves, our relationships, and our society at large. The field incorporates a mix of natural sciences and social sciences. It is based on physiology – the regular functions of human beings; psychology – how our mind’s functions influence our behaviors and decisions; sociology – the development, structure, and functioning of human society; and anthropology – the evolution of human societies and cultures.

Degree programs in behavioral science teach students to apply the fundamentals of each of these sciences to understand human habits, actions, and intentions. They prepare graduates to work as behavioral scientists in human behavior research or as hands-on practitioners trained to address individual and social problems.

Child Psychology
Degree programs in child psychology prepare students to work in one or more of the three main concentrations in the field.

Adolescent psychology is focused on issues relevant to children and youth between the ages of 12 and 18. These issues include behavioral problems, learning disabilities, depression, and eating disorders.

Developmental child psychology is concerned with the emotional and cognitive developments that impact children as they age. Among these developments are language, formation of identity, and understanding of morality.

Abnormal Child Psychology focuses on the treatment of children and adolescents dealing with atypical issues like physical abuse, trauma, personality disorders, and sociopathy.

Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychologists focus on pathological populations. In other words, they work mostly with people who have a mental illness or a psychosis – a severe disorder or disability that can incapacitate them, not merely diminish the quality of their life. Examples are schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder.

Family and Consumer Science
Family and consumer science education programs teach students how to help people make informed decisions about their wellbeing and relationships. Topics included in the curriculum include human development, family studies, food science and human nutrition, health and wellness, personal finance, and design and merchandising.

Human Development
Degree programs in this human development explore physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development through each stage of human life – prenatal, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood, and death and dying.

The physical domain is concerned with growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness. Cognitive human development comprises learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, and social relationships. Students learn how these three domains of human development influence and impact every aspect of our lives – from self-respect and self-esteem to how we interact with family, peers, and society at large.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Skills You’ll Learn

Active Listening
The capacities to pay attention, listen intently, and read between the lines are the keys to understanding individual cases and determining appropriate courses of action.

Assessment and Report Writing
Providing marriage and family therapy involves tracking, assessing, and recording client progress. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills
Marriage and family therapists are consistently called upon to interact with, to understand, and to support their patients.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
The ability to assess situations, think critically, and find solutions is a significant part of this kind of work.

Cultural Awareness / Appreciation for Diversity
Marriage and family therapists must work effectively with people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender backgrounds.

Empathy and Compassion
The capacities to empathize and show compassion are especially needed in this field, because the journey from marriage and family conflict to resolution is a difficult, emotional one.

The work of helping people cope with their challenges is not easy work. And it is not fast work. The role calls for patience and an appreciation of small victories.

Social Perception
Clients’ internal ‘data’ – their feelings and emotions – may sometimes be accessible only through thoughtful observation of non-verbal cues. While people cannot always express what is wrong, their behavior often provides clues to what is affecting them. Marriage and family therapists become perceptive to these clues.

Trust Building
Building trust is vital when working with people struggling with conflict. The ability to build trust is valued in every kind of work, as well as in society at large.

What Can You Do with a Marriage and Family Therapy Degree?

Marriage and family therapist are typically employed as clinicians and consultants in:

  • Churches and Religious Settings
  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Facilities
  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
  • Health Maintenance Organizations – HMOs
  • Inpatient Care Facilities and Hospitals
  • Legal, Court, and Correctional Systems
  • Medical Centers
  • Mental Health Clinics
  • Nursing and Residential Care Facilities
  • Offices of Health Practitioners
  • Outpatient Care Centers
  • Private Practice
  • Schools and Head Start Centers
  • Social Service Agencies
  • Substance Abuse and Addiction Treatment Centers
  • The Government
  • The Military
  • University / Research Settings

Some of the titles held by MFT professionals include:

  • Academic Researcher
  • Church Counselor
  • College / University Administrator
  • College / University Professor
  • Couples and Family Therapist / Counselor
  • Family / Behavioral Therapist
  • Family / School / General Social Worker
  • Marriage and Family Therapist / Counselor
  • Medical Office / Practice Manager
  • Mental Health / Behavioral Counselor
  • Outpatient Care Therapist
  • Researcher / Research Associate
  • Social Worker


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