Transforming lives: making a career as a marriage and family therapist

March 29, 2019

An overall goal of marriage and family therapy is to help people navigate life’s challenges.

But unlike life coaches, religious leaders, and other professionals who assist people with personal problems, marriage and family therapists have special expertise in family systems and their impact on individuals.

“I often work with individuals,” says Roxanne Bamond, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Capella faculty member “But my questions, assessments, and suggestions are always through the lens of the larger system. How does the person’s partner, children, parents, or larger family impact the situation? I’m interested in the context.”

What is marriage and family therapy and how does it work?

Most often, marriage and family therapists provide counseling for individuals, couples, or groups. They are sometimes called the mavericks of the mental health field. Their approach centers on changing systems, rather than individuals.

“We don’t automatically assume that the individual is dysfunctional,” Bamond says. “Rather, the individual is functional but is often trying to operate in a dysfunctional system that shapes their behavior. If the person can figure out how that system affects them, they may be able to change the system and alter the outcome.”

For example: Bamond might ask a person with an eating disorder how their partner talks about food. “I might say, ‘Who else is around when you’re eating or not eating? What is their relationship with food? Do things change when other family members are around?’” Bamond explains. “I’m trying to get a larger view of how food, eating, and relationships fit into their lives.”

Carol Pfeiffer Messmore, PhD, faculty chair of Capella’s marriage and family therapy program, prompts clients to think about the larger family context by asking questions like, “If your mother was here, what would she tell us?” Depending on the nature of the problem, clients may even choose to bring other family members to therapy sessions. “In some cases, the issues we’re dealing with are intergenerational,” she says.

In addition to working with clients, marriage and family therapists spend time charting client progress, writing treatment plans, completing paperwork for insurance and billing, and more.

Where are marriage and family therapists employed?

Marriage and family therapists work in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings. Many work in private practice, but others work in hospitals, hospice, church counseling centers, government, or social service agencies. Some provide residential care. Others do clinical supervision of other therapists. And some even go into business—serving in human resources departments or working as consultants.

Occasionally, people in other professions believe a background in therapy can help them with their work. Messmore says she knows of Capella graduates and military chaplains who have sought marriage and family degrees because they want to enhance their ability to help individuals sort through challenging issues.

What kind of education is required to practice marriage and family therapy?

“You’ll need a master’s level education or higher to work in the field,” Messmore says. Most practitioners have a master’s or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy.

If you’re considering a degree in the field, be sure to look for a program that’s properly accredited. COAMFTE accreditation is the recognized professional benchmark in marriage and family therapy education, aligning to most states’ licensure requirements.

What kind of licensure and other requirements are needed to practice?

All 50 U.S. states require a license to practice marriage and family therapy, but licensure requirements often vary by state. Generally, in addition to an advanced degree, students must complete between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of post-graduate field work in a clinical setting before they can apply for full licensure.

What does it take to succeed in marriage and family therapy?

“It definitely helps to be nonjudgmental,” says Messmore. Therapists have to be able to meet people where they are. “Our clients are the experts on themselves. We cannot tell someone how to live their life, we can only offer guidance. They have to take the action.”

Listening skills are vital to success in the profession. “You have to have a deep-seated curiosity in the way the world works,” Bamond says. “You have to like people and have an interest in helping them.” Creativity is also key, she says: “You have to be able to think up new approaches and solutions. You have to be able to think outside the box.”

What is satisfying about working as a marriage and family therapist?

Therapy is very satisfying because when it’s done right, it results in transformation. “It’s about making a difference in someone’s life,” Messmore says. “You get to see it in their interactions with other people. For example, you might get to see them laugh or enjoy being a parent after just a few sessions. It’s such a delight.”

Bamond agrees. “The people we work with have often been beaten down by a problem that they’ve been unable to solve for years. We get the opportunity to see people get better. I like that process. I’m hooked on change.”

Find out more about degrees in marriage and family therapy.

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