Sometimes even the most stable relationships hit a rocky patch. A spouse might develop an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or some other negative activity, or a child might start acting out for no apparent reason. When these issues occur, people might want to ignore them or attempt to fix the problem themselves. Sadly, this often leads to bigger or additional problems and the end result can be disastrous. However, there is help available to people and families that find themselves in the difficult position of needing help.

Marriage and family counselors can help individuals and families pinpoint these issues and create ways to overcome them. These professionals are trained to see the full picture objectively. They can figure out where the issues are and help end them. Whether the solution requires therapy, treatment, or a combination of the two, a marriage and family counselor can provide hope for individuals are families when the situation seems hopeless. If you think you might want to be part of the solution of helping people and families regain their lives, this document will provide more information about what marriage and family counselors do, the education and licensing requirements, and where a person trained in helping families and individuals might work.

What Does a Marriage and Family Counselor Do?

Marriage and family counselors assist families and couples when they are having issues. They are also referred to as marriage and family therapists. The difference between a family therapist and counselor is the type of services each provides. A counselor is an ear to listen to and counsel those that seek help, providing help and resources the person can use to overcome an issue. A therapist uses techniques and tools, such as behavioral therapy, to help people work through their issues. Therapists and counselors might also have different education and licensing requirements depending on the state where they practice. Marriage and family counselors may help a married couple work through communication issues, help children with behavioral issues, or help someone who is seeking assistance with chemical dependency.

Who Do They Work With?

As their title suggests, marriage and family counselors work with couples and families. The counselor might offer services to the couple and each individual, as well as counseling for the entire family. Some councilors specialize in certain types of marriages or families such same-sex marriages and blended families. The counselor can provide services for a variety of issues including drug addiction. People might seek out counselors to deal with marital issues, behavioral issues with children, and issues dealing with different types of abuse such as alcohol, drug, physical, or sexual abuse. Along with the clients, marriage and family counselors can help these people get in touch with other needed social services so that all issues and concerns are addressed.

Why Do We Need Marriage and Family Counselors?

People who are facing issues need professionals to help them. Talking to friends and family can only help so much. If a person is suffering from some sort of trauma, even the most well-intentioned friends and family members might not be able to provide the level of help and care a person needs, especially in the case of abuse, be it physical or chemical. Marriage and family counselors are specialists with experience in helping others work through issues and emotions, which not only helps the people themselves but society in general. Counselors can prevent a difficult situation from becoming a tragedy and can help people end destructive behaviors that could lead to the destruction of relationships and lives. This is especially true when dealing with drug abuse and dependency. A counselor can help the person with the addiction find treatment and support and assist with the problem and avoid the destruction of the family unit. Counselors can also help those living with an addict to find ways to not enable the person as well as coping techniques. When a person has the tools to cope and understands what drove them to abuse substances or pull away from friends and family, they have a better chance of staying in recovery and living a full and productive life.

What Issues Might Marriage and Family Counselors Deal With?

Marriage and family counselors deal with a variety of issues and problems that people and families face.

Some of these issues might include:

  • Intimacy issues between a couple
  • Fidelity issues in the event that someone strayed from the marriage
  • Communication issues between a couple/parents and children
  • Conflict resolution between a couple or a family
  • Behavioral problems between adults and children
  • Abuse
  • Chemical dependency
  • Phobias
  • Coping skills

Counselors typically pick a few areas in which to specialize, but most are trained in the areas listed above since many different issues could be inter-related. For example, a couple experiencing intimacy issues might be doing so because of a lack of trust due to past infidelity, or a child might be exhibiting behavioral issues due to an irrational fear or phobia.

How to Become a Marriage and Family Counselor

Education

Bachelor’s

A bachelor’s degree is usually the minimum requirement for a person to start a career as a marriage and family counselor. Attaining an associate degree in a related field can help with the progression of a four-year degree but will not help in job procurement. Most people who plan to become counselors attain degrees in psychology, sociology, social work, or education. The course work might vary a bit depending on the major, but most people who plan to become counselors or therapists take courses in psychology, sociology, abnormal psychology, child psychology, and human development. It’s important to note that, whatever degree a person pursues, it is of the utmost importance that both the program and school are accredited.

Master’s

Getting a master’s degree in counseling or a related field will help a person further their career as a marriage and family counselor. Although you can attain the required license to work at some level of counseling with a bachelor’s degree, for those who want to eventually work independently, a master’s degree is required. Students in graduate programs will take classes similar to the ones they took in their undergraduate program, just at a higher level. But there will also be added courses in counseling, therapy techniques, and other areas depending on the student’s specialization. In any case, students should be prepared to take additional courses in psychology, behavioral health, counseling, and human development. As with the bachelor’s degree, students should ensure the graduate program and school they choose to attend are regionally accredited.

Doctorate

Once students have a master’s degree, they are generally ready to take the next steps to become full-fledged marriage and family counselors. However, if a marriage and family counselor wants to run their own clinic or move into the top levels of management at an existing clinic, then a terminal degree would be a natural next step. Many of the doctoral level programs deal with administration, management, and policy and procedures that one needs to know when heading up a private practice or clinic. Other programs focus on the clinical side of the profession, such as psychology or social work. Doctoral candidates will take additional courses in therapy, counseling, and psychology, as well as courses in management, leadership, and other areas that are beneficial to a person who plans to start and run a practice, or take over the leadership role in an established practice or clinic.

Experience

Most marriage and family counselors start out working for social service agencies or clinics that specialize in counseling. As they gain experience, often referred to as clinical hours, they can qualify for higher licensing levels that will help them progress toward having their own practice. A portion of those clinical hours often include time spent practicing under a fully licensed and credentialed counselor. Once they have reached the required clinical hours, first to meet state licensure requirements and then the required clinical work to practice independently, a marriage and family counselor can then open their own practice and work independently. The number of clinical hours needed varies by state, but generally the process takes several years. The bulk of the clinical hours should be in the areas where the marriage and family counselor wants to practice independently, but working under an experienced counselor is the most important aspect of the process.

Exam

Examinations are a state-by-state issue. If a person wants to practice in more than one state, then they would have to take the licensure exam in each state they intend to practice unless two states have reciprocal agreements. There is a national exam and depending on the state requirements and it is overseen by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board. But this does not negate that fact counselors must have licenses in any state where they intend to work. Each state determines what is on their exam, so anyone seeking to take the exam should find out what the state requirements are for the exam. Once a person knows which exam they need to take, they can find test preparation materials online by visiting the Association of Martial and Family Therapy website.

Licensure

Each state has its own licensing requirements and the requirements can vary greatly. Check with the board in the state where you intended to work to make sure you meet the educational and work requirements for licensure. Each state has its own licensing board and they are administered by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. It's important to realize that a license must be attained before anyone begins working as a counselor, otherwise it is a serious violation. Practicing without a license could lead to fines, jail time, and the possibility of never obtaining a license in that state or any other. In many cases, a social worker’s license is the base license and then specialized licenses in counseling are required. These requirements also vary by state.

Where Do Marriage and Family Counselors Work?

Marriage and family counselors can work wherever married people or families might go to seek help. They can be found in hospitals and mental health facilities, social service agencies, and in private clinics and health centers. Students who need counseling can seek out a family therapist through their school, and some churches with outreach centers also have counselors on staff. Counselors can also maintain a private practice, so they will sometimes have their own offices without being attached to any one specific medical facility or social service agency.

Salary

The average salary for a marriage and family counselor in the United States is $49,425; the more specialized the practice the more a counselor can earn. For example, a counselor who specializes in eating disorders might earn more than a counselor who specializes in community health or trauma. Entry-level counselors earn on average $37,000 while a counselor with some experience and clinical hours under their belt can earn on average $75,000 a year. The salary can also fluctuate depending on location and need. An area that needs therapists can often pay a greater salary than an area where there are plenty, or a saturation of, therapists.

Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for marriage and family counselors is excellent for the time frame from 2019 to 2029. The expected increase for employment of counselors is 22%, which is a much faster rate than average job growth. This could be because more people are becoming more open about mental health needs, and therefore are more likely to seek treatment, since there is less of a stigma in seeking assistance. There were 66,000 marriage and family counselors employed in the United States in 2019, and it’s anticipated that another 15,000 will be needed by 2029.