If you are looking for a rewarding career within the field of helping others, then pursuing an education and license to practice marriage and family therapy might be for you. Marriage and family therapists are helpful for identifying issues that can arise within family systems. They use their knowledge of psychotherapeutic practices and recovery strategies to help better the lives of families, individuals, children, and couples. LMFTs work in a variety of locations including private practice settings, hospitals, psychiatric units, and more.
What Does a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Do?
A licensed marriage and family therapist is a mental health professional that is responsible for helping clients navigate complex mental health struggles and family issues that they may be facing. They may help each person work through their struggles individually, or they may work with couples or families together to improve their communication. Some of the issues that a licensed marriage and family therapist is equipped to address can include:
- Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia, etc.
- Addiction and substance abuse issues as well as recovery.
- Domestic violence or child abuse issues.
- Marital issues such as infidelity or separation.
- Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
- Distress that can go along with chronic physical conditions.
Because the education and training of LMFTs is so comprehensive and covers family counseling as well as individual psychotherapy models, the therapist can help the issues outlined above as well as with many more areas where someone may struggle.
LMFTs also perform many tasks that don’t directly involve speaking with a client but are just as necessary. These tasks may include communicating with insurance companies, marketing their practice, collecting payments, and documenting client progress. LMFT’s may also attend training and seminars during their personal or work time to improve their knowledge and skill set.
Why Do We Need Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists?
LMFTs are important to individuals and families to improve their functioning and emotional health, which can then improve the wellbeing of society as a whole. In fact, recent studies showed that almost 90% of clients reported that they had experienced improvements in their emotional health, and ¾ had an improvement in their physical health. The majority of clients even found that their functioning at work improved. Additionally, child-parent relationships can improve with the use of an LMFT, as studies showed that the child patient demonstrated improved behavior by 73.7% and improved performance in school. The child also showed an increased ability to get along with others as well.
The success of marriage and family therapy comes from the fact that it is brief, solution-focused, specific with attainable goals, and designed with an “end in mind”. Research has shown that it’s as effective if not more effective than standard treatment for the many issues the therapist may address. On average, an LMFT will see a family or individual client for an average of 12 sessions. About half of the treatments are one-on-one, and the other half is divided between marital couples and/or families.
How to Become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
If you have determined that this career path sounds right for you and want to further your education, then you might be wondering how to become a LMFT. But what is a LMFT degree? The LMFT degree is a master’s degree program that will prepare graduates to become licensed in marriage and family therapy, which will certify them as a healthcare professional that can identify and diagnose mental health and interpersonal issues among individuals and families. There are several steps along the way that you must fulfill to first get into the graduate program at the school of your choice, then to receive your master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, and finally, to get your license. Students will go through rigorous courses and training, as there are significant national and individual state requirements to ensure that you are prepared for the world of helping others navigate their complex emotional and familial issues.
Before applying for a LMFT degree program, you will first need to obtain a bachelor’s degree. This degree should ideally be in fields such as psychology, counseling, sociology, or social work in order to prepare you for the future coursework you will be taking. Once you qualify to apply for the master’s in marriage and family therapy program of choice, you should expect a multi-step application process to be admitted. While the process may vary depending on which program and university you are applying for, there is a general process to expect, which is outlined below.
- Maintain a good standing at the university where you received your bachelor’s degree, which generally looks like a GPA that can range from 2.0 or above, or 60 semester units completed.
- Complete the program application of your chosen university, which may have the following requirements:
- A professional resume.
- A personal statement.
- Two to four letters of recommendation from personal or professional references.
- An interview, often held by program heads.
- Become aware of and complete any prerequisites that are necessary for admittance into the LMFT program as outlined by your chosen university.
- It’s important to note that some schools require hopeful students to complete the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in order to be admitted into their graduate programs. However, that practice is gradually decreasing, and some schools no longer require the G
- RE, as more and more programs are choosing to look at many different factors of a student’s performance instead of a GRE test score to determine if they should be admitted. For example, a school might look at a student’s GPA throughout their undergraduate studies combined with their personal statement as outlined above.
LMFT Curriculum and Coursework
Once you have entered a master’s in marriage and family therapy degree program, you can expect to be in the program for about 2 years and 60 credits full time, although there are some options in some programs that can take 3 years and/or allow students to go part time. The LMFT degree program is rigorous and comprehensive, and you can expect the coursework to typically include classes such as:
- Child development
- Ethics and law
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Therapeutic theory
- Social justice issues
- Family therapy
- Cultural competency
- Trauma-informed care
- Case Management
- And more topics.
Within those courses, you will gain skills such as critical thinking, real-world analysis, understanding, and application of family issues, and decision making skills. You will also learn about things that could affect your clients directly, such as legal and ethical standards that you should follow as a marriage and family therapist.
After you have completed all 60 units and two years of your master’s LMFT degree program, you will then apply for graduation at your university. At around the same time, you will be registering as an associate marriage and family therapist, which will give you the opportunity to meet the requirement for licensure that involves working a certain number of hours under a licensed practitioner. After you have done so, you will be able to take the LMFT exam for a chance at licensure to become an LMFT officially.
LMFT Licensure Requirements
While the LMFT licensing process can differ depending on the state, each candidate will need to have graduated from an accredited MFT program and have met the requirements that are necessary for licensure that have been established by your state board. This generally takes about two to three years. There are many options for earning your degree, including in-person, online, and/or hybrid courses. Graduating from a COAMFTE or CACREP accredited program is vital to your success, as it ensures that your program has met certain quality assurance standards. Once you have obtained your master’s degree, you will need to complete the following steps:
- Register as an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT). Each state has a different program through which you can apply, and your MFT program may have more information on the requirements for this process before graduation.
- Complete a livescan (fingerprinting) and criminal background check.
- Complete required hours of supervised experience. This is an important step, as it gives you real-world experience with clients under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. The purpose of this step is also to give you the opportunity to problem-solve and reflect with your supervisor in order to confidently go into the field once you are licensed. The number of hours needed varies by program, but it usually runs between 2000-4000 hours of supervised practice. Some programs allow you to complete part of the hours while you are still in school.
- Pass the clinical exam for MFT licensure. You will need to take a state-recognized exam to obtain licensure in the state you wish to practice. In order to prepare for the exam, the Handbook for Candidates is available as a comprehensive roadmap to the exam process. This handbook is recommended by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB).
- Earn your official marriage and family license in the state of your choice.
As mentioned, however, the LMFT state requirements can differ. For example, Florida requires only 1,500 hours of supervised experience, while California requires 3,000. Both require these hours to be done within two years, and both require a bachelor’s degree plus a master’s or PhD. Meanwhile, Kansas requires 4,000 clinical hours. All states require students to take the national Examination in Marital and Family Therapy.
LMFT Salary & Career Outlook
Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for a licensed marriage and family therapist was $49,880 in 2021. The lowest 10 percent of workers earned less than $37,050 annually. Conversely, the highest 10 percent earned more than $96,520 annually. Per the BLS, the top industries in which marriage and family therapists worked in 2021 includes:
- State government (excluding education and hospitals). The average pay for these positions was $77,960 annually.
- Outpatient care centers. The average pay for these positions was $57,930 annually.
- Offices of other health practitioners. The average pay for these positions was $49,630 annually.
- Individual and family services. The average pay for these positions was $48,340 annually.
The pay for LMFTs can vary somewhat depending on which state you live. For example, as of 2022, the average annual salary for the following states is listed below:
- California: $81,616
- New York: $73,139
- Florida: $66,802
- Texas: $59,701
- Oregon: $88,141
The job outlook for marriage and family therapists is faster than average for all occupations at 14 percent and with 6,400 openings projected each year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that many of the job openings are likely to occur from workers transferring occupations, retiring, or otherwise exiting the job force.
LMFT vs Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
At first glance, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) may seem very similar. However, there are some key differences that are worth exploring to help you determine which direction you may want to take your career.
An LCSW is a specialized type of social worker that is state-certified to diagnose and treat issues related to mental, emotional, and behavioral health through the development of treatment plans for individuals, families, couples, and other groups. While this is very similar to an LMFT, an LCSW also spends significant time researching and referring clients to other resources. LCSW’s are distinguished from entry-level social workers due to having earned their master’s degree and state certification, which gives them the knowledge and ability to provide mental health care to clients.
A master’s degree is required for both an LMFT and an LCSW. The main difference between an LCSW and an LMFT is that the former focuses primarily on mental health disorders, especially in school, while the latter focuses on relationship issues. Otherwise, they are similar in that they both use therapeutic techniques with similar clients. Licensed clinical social workers can expect a job growth of about 12 percent through 2030, which is faster than average for all occupations. Similarly, the job growth for LMFTs is also faster than average at 14 percent. LCSW’s earn a little more on average than LMFT’s annually, at about $50,390 in 2021.
An individual in either career has the option to open their own private practice. Additionally, when applying for work, they may find that many agencies are willing to hire an LMFT if they need an LCSW, or vice-versa. There is a lot of flexibility within this career when deciding on where to work, whether it’s a government agency, private practice, hospital, or anywhere else that needs a mental health professional.
LMFT vs LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor)
LMFTs and licensed professional counselors (LPCs) both treat populations that have mental health struggles, but the main difference is the issues being treated. LMFTs tend to focus on issues that arise in the dynamics surrounding marriage and family, while LPCs will likely treat mental health issues that stem from a wide variety of causes. Both LMFTs and LPCs help their clients live happier lives and improve their mental health. In order to do so, they utilize similar skills, such as empathy, communication, problem-solving, and listening skills. Additionally, they might both work in similar environments such as private practice, outpatient facilities, or hospitals.
To practice counseling, a licensed professional counselor must earn a graduate degree in mental health counseling. Then, much like an LMFT, they must complete 2000-3000 clinical hours under the supervision of a licensed counselor. Afterwards, they can apply for licensure.
The main difference between the two programs are the courses that students take in their graduate programs. Students in the marriage and family therapy programs can expect to take courses focused on family systems and couples therapy, which may include child counseling, human sexuality, trauma, and grief. Meanwhile, students in the mental health counseling program will likely learn about behavioral development on a biological, community, and organizational basis, as well as theories of psychopathology, and other systems. Both programs teach students about law and ethics, how to conceptualize cases, mental health disorders, and research methods.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for a LPC is projected to grow 22% through 2031, which is much faster than average for all occupations. The median annual wage for an LPC in 2021 was about $48,520.
Both LMFTs and LPCs can expect their jobs to be both rewarding and stressful at times, as they often have heavy caseloads and not enough resources to meet demand. However, they can also expect their jobs to be rewarding as well, as they are able to help clients through difficult situations and provide emotional support.
Learn more about other licensures by checking out our social work and counseling licensure page.