What Is an LMFT?

A licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) is a mental health professional trained in working with families, couples, individuals, and organizations in a systemic manner. Systemic thinking allows professionals to take a holistic view of situations and challenges so that plans for therapy take into account relationship patterns, processes of communication, family structure, intergenerational matters, and more. LMFTs diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders (like clinical depression) and do so with careful attention in the context of couple and family systems. 

As an MFT, you might help your clients work through child-parent conflict, address child behavioral problems, and improve communication along the way. Treatment is usually divided between time spent on individual therapy and time spent on couple therapy, family therapy, or both, if necessary.

Types of Marriage and Family Therapy

MFTs employ different types of therapy to help a client’s condition:

  • Structural family therapy (SFT) observes familial dynamics, boundaries, and structures. Through this observation, an MFT will work with family units to disrupt negative behaviors or change the dynamics within a familial relationship. By employing activities such as role play, a marriage and family therapist can examine subsystems within the family structure, such as parental or sibling subsystems. 
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that involves patients and their therapists discovering unhealthy thought patterns, behaviors, and coping mechanisms—then making efforts to change these disruptive behaviors. Within marriage and family therapy, this treatment may also be used to further understand familial structures. 
  • Intergenerational family therapy works to identify patterns resulting from intergenerational trauma and determine how it influences family and individual behavior. Identifying multigenerational behavioral patterns, such as management of anxiety, can help people see how their current problems may be rooted in previous generations. 
  • Strategic family therapy examines family processes and functions, such as communication or problem-solving patterns, by evaluating family behavior outside the therapy session. Therapeutic techniques may include reframing or redefining a problem scenario or using paradoxical interventions to create the desired change. 
  • Systemic family therapy emphasizes the entire family’s feelings. It attempts to uncover the problems within a family dynamic, as well as family members’ ideas and attitudes to discover what may be going on with the family as whole. This type of therapy may benefit a family with a child who has special needs.
  • Integrative Systemic Therapy (IST) is a comprehensive, problem-solving perspective that transcends the specific models of therapy and accesses their concepts and interventions to fit the particular needs and patterns of a family, couple, or individual that presents for therapy.

Master’s in marriage and family therapy programs prepare students to use an array of therapies when working with diverse populations to address their unique needs. At Northwestern University, the Integrative Systemic Therapy (IST) model is the foundation for the online master’s in marriage and family therapy program. Developed by faculty, the IST-driven curriculum places an emphasis on clients’ participation in developing treatment plans. Upon completion of the program, graduates are prepared to systematically address complex concerns, collaborating with clients and their loved ones along the way.

What Are the Qualifications Needed To Be a Marriage and Family Therapist?

While everyone’s path looks different, there are some common steps you will have to take to become a marriage and family therapist. Here’s an overview of the basic qualifications and requirements:

  1. Earn a graduate degree. Regardless of the undergraduate degree you hold, you will need a master’s degree to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. A master’s in marriage and family therapy is generally required, though the educational requirement is defined by your state’s regulations. The degree program will include a practicum or internship and fieldwork hours with direct client contact. An online master’s degree in marriage and family therapy is a great option for those who have their sights set on an MFT career. 
  2. Take the national licensing exam(s) required by your state. If you are planning on becoming an LMFT, you will need to pass exam requirements, which typically include the MFT National Examination offered by the Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB) and any state-specific jurisprudence examination. Check with your state’s board for details on applying to take the exam and exam eligibility. Prior to sitting for the national examination, you must receive approval in the state where you intend to practice.
  3. Complete supervised clinical hours. Experiential learning continues with post-degree clinical hours. Exact requirements vary by state, but regardless of location, you will have to accrue a certain number of post-graduate direct clinical hours under the supervision of a licensed clinical professional. For this stage, individuals may need to obtain a temporary or associate license to complete the supervised clinical experience.
  4. Obtain an independent practice license. Obtain full licensure to begin independent practice as defined by the state.

MFT Career Outlook

Once you have earned your degree and licensure, you can decide where to put your newfound MFT skills to use. Whether you start at a mental health or substance abuse treatment center or practice in a hospital, you will have the chance to help individuals and diverse populations break out of old patterns, develop positive behaviors, and grow healthy relationships. Employment of marriage and family therapists is projected to grow 16 percent from 2020 to 2030, with about 8,500 annual job openings expected. 

MFT Salary

While salaries vary by location and work setting, the median annual salary for marriage and family therapists was $49,880 in 2021, according to pay data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest 10 percent of MFTs earned less than $37,050 while the highest 10 percent earned more than $96,520.

Last updated June 2022.