How to Become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) 

Wondering how to become a marriage and family therapist? You have come to the right place. A marriage and family therapist (MFT) is a licensed and trained professional who conceptualizes and intervenes from a systemic perspective. LMFTs are focused on providing family, couple and individual therapy for clients facing relationship issues, concerns about adaptation of children, life cycle transitions, and the challenges of mental or emotional disorders. The issues clients present can be understood in terms of  their relationships and other contextual factors.  MFTs work to address client concerns  from a biopsychosocial and larger system perspective. 

If you have decided that you want to become an MFT, there are some common steps to consider. Most people start by pursuing an undergraduate degree in a social science of their choosing. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree before you can earn your master’s degree, which is the minimum education requirement for becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist in all states. With a robust curriculum rooted in evidence-based practice, a master’s-level MFT degree is a common choice for aspiring professionals looking to learn from experts in the field and develop essential skills to serve a variety of clients. 

1. Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Although there is no specific bachelor’s degree required for the MFT pathway, there are a number of majors you can pursue to help prepare you for your career in marriage and family therapy. These include:

  • Family studies: a discipline that meshes psychology and family science to explore human development and familial relationships. 
  • Psychology: the study of the mind and behavior, which includes a variety of subfields.
  • Sociology: a broad social sciences field encompassing the study of race, gender, sexuality, law, history, economics, politics, ethnography, culture, and more.
  • Child development: an area of study exploring the emotional and social growth and development of children. 
  • Cognitive science: a discipline and profession dedicated to understanding the human mind, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Gender and sexuality studies: the study of gender and sexuality, and their relation to historical and contemporary feminism and LGBTQIA+ activism.
  • Human communication sciences: a field dedicated to helping children and adults overcome difficulties in hearing, speech, language, and learning.

In such undergraduate programs, you may take courses such as:

  • Introduction to Psychology: provides a survey of core research on human behavior to lay a foundation for psychology as a research science.
  • Theories of Personality
  • Lifespan Development or Human Development
  • Race and Society: explores the nature of race, why it matters in American society, racial conflicts and approaches to overcoming racial inequality, and the relationship between race, power, and social stratification.
  • Feminist Theory: encourages students to clarify and assess modern feminist questions by reading and interpreting feminist texts from the 1970s to the present through a modern lens.

2. Earn an MFT Degree

When you pursue a master’s in marriage and family therapy, your studies will focus on both the theory and skill acquisition.   You don’t have to be in a physical classroom to build the knowledge base for this career.  There are top-tier programs for individuals who prefer to earn their degree online. With rolling admissions and four program start dates per year, the online Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy program offered by the Family Institute at Northwestern University is a viable option for learners across the United States. The program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) and can be completed in as few as 21 months. Please note that some states require graduates to complete a COAMFTE-accredited program in order to be licensed. 

Using Integrative Systemic Therapy (IST) developed by The Family Institute, students learn a comprehensive perspective for understanding client concerns and choosing interventions that fit their needs and their specific patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. This is a highly collaborative approach to  family, couple, and individual therapy. Both the curriculum and clinical placements are informed by multicultural and social justice perspectives, enabling a comprehensive education on modern therapeutic practices.

Earn your MS in Marriage and Family Therapy Online from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

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An MFT degree will enable you to pursue your own research and come to your own conclusions—just as you would in a real therapeutic setting. Courses you may be expected to take as part of this program include:

  • Methods of System Therapy: introduces approaches to engaging, working with, and terminating cases in a therapy system.
  • Sex Therapy: introduces a systematic approach to diagnosing and treating difficulties in the sex lives of individuals and couples.
  • Human Development and the Life Cycle: provides a framework for understanding human development across the entire life span, as well as how individuals dynamically interact with their families.
  • Family Research: instills skills for understanding MFT research methods, how to apply these methods in your own research, and how to critique the research of others in your field.

By carefully studying each of these topics (and more), you will come to understand the depth and breadth of what it takes to be a licensed marriage and family therapist. 

3. Pass State Licensure Exam and Apply for Initial Licensure

Another crucial requirement to practice as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in most states and jurisdictions is to pass the MFT National Examination offered by the Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB). This exam is designed to test your knowledge level and determine how fit you are to practice in the role of an LMFT. AMFTRB offers a practice exam which comprehensively outlines what information you should know before taking the exam.

When researching the field and LMFT occupation, aspiring professionals should make it a point to learn more about state-by-state exam requirements.

4. Complete Supervised Clinical Hours

In order to become an LMFT, you must accrue direct client hours under the supervision of a licensed clinical professional. Doing so will prepare you to work in a professional therapeutic setting.

The total hour count necessary will differ depending on the state in which you plan to practice. For example, to qualify for state licensure in Illinois, you’ll need to accrue at least 3,000 hours of professional work experience. Before you begin working toward becoming an LMFT, be sure to research the number of hours you’ll need to practice in your state or jurisdiction, as well as requirements for approved supervisors. 

5. Apply for an Independent Practice License 

Once you’ve acquired either a master’s or doctoral degree, accrued the necessary supervised clinical hours for your state or jurisdiction, passed the MFT National Examination, and completed any other state-specific requirements, you’ll be eligible to apply for licensure. This process will depend on the state or jurisdiction in which you’re looking to apply for licensure.

Last updated June 2022.