Marriage and Family Therapy | Program Guide

A degree in marriage and family therapy is ideal for students interested in helping people work through interpersonal issues. The practice of marriage and family therapy — a specialization within general therapy and counseling — involves treating issues affecting both individuals and their families.

Schools may list marriage and family therapy programs under degree titles like couples and family therapy, family systems therapy, or family counseling. While researching how to become a marriage and family therapist, learners should explore all available education and program options. This guide provides information on how to earn a marriage and family therapy degree.

What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

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Marriage and family therapy has foundations in the family social work of the early 1900s, which focused primarily on child welfare. Shaped by early child psychoanalysts in the 1930s, marriage and family therapy emerged more officially in the late 1950s as family therapy. Practitioners during that time sought new ways to approach individual therapeutic methods.

Practitioners worked to address patients within their entire family contexts, as opposed to separating the individual from the family unit. They believed addressing issues present in the entire family unit would contribute to individual success.

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Marriage and family therapy still holds strong ties to social work practice and foundations. Marriage and family therapists address issues affecting overall family units, including mental illness, transitions such as divorce and death, and financial trouble. Family therapy may supplement individual therapy, allowing patients to work with their family members and spouses.

Marriage and family therapy can include both individual and group sessions. For example, two people in couples therapy may attend sessions individually and together. This approach allows practitioners to observe the entire context of a patient's life and therapeutic needs.

Differences Between a Marriage and Family Therapy Program and a General Counseling or Therapy Program

Marriage and family therapy degrees include some key differences from and similarities to generalized counseling degrees. Both are available at the master's level and they typically include some of the same foundational courses. Many general counseling and psychology programs offer marriage and family therapy as a specialization or concentration.

General counseling programs emphasize theories and practices for the general diagnosis and treatment of patients. Marriage and family therapy programs, on the other hand, specifically address behaviors and dynamics within family units and couples. Marriage and family therapy curricula generally include coursework in interpersonal communications and family relationships.

The primary differences between marriage and family therapy programs and more general counseling or therapy programs are the required coursework. The section below details common classes for marriage and family therapy students.

Sample Coursework

Marriage and family therapy programs and general counseling programs often include similar foundational coursework, but marriage and family therapy curricula build on general counseling knowledge with specialized coursework related to the practice.

Marriage and family therapy students gain skills and knowledge in interpersonal behaviors, approaches to marriage and family therapy, and ethics. The table below includes examples of courses for each type of program. However, each school sets unique course requirements and class titles may vary.

General Counseling or Therapy Program

  • Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories
  • Techniques in Counseling
  • Ethics in Counseling
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Evaluation and Assessment
  • Research and Statistics
  • Group Counseling

Marriage and Family Therapy Program

  • History and Theory of Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Modern Approaches to Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Ethics in Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Individual Life Span and Family Life Cycle
  • Gender and Sexuality Development

What Can You Do With a Marriage and Family Therapy Degree?

The roles, duties, and responsibilities of marriage and family therapists vary based on their educations and work settings. For example, a marriage and family therapist who works in private practice may spend a typical day in sessions with clients, while a therapist at a hospital or outpatient facility may complete administrative and consulting duties in addition to working with clients.

Marriage and family therapy sessions can take different forms. Therapists may perform sessions with entire family groups or work with family members individually. Practitioners may also use a combination of both types of sessions to help patients work through family and interpersonal issues.

What Can Marriage and Family Therapy Help With?

Marriage and family therapy helps patients deal with various issues. The following list is not exhaustive, but gives some examples. This type of therapy can address a wide variety of issues in both adults and children.

  • Parent and child conflict
  • Marital and couple conflict
  • Infidelity
  • Support for LGBTQ+ youth
  • Children's behavior issues
  • Issues related to eldercare
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Grief

Where Do Marriage and Family Therapists Work? Icon - Plus/Minus

General therapists and counselors often work in settings similar to those of marriage and family therapists. Work environments for marriage and family therapists include the following:

  • Child and family services
  • Social work firms
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Private and group practice offices
  • Government organizations
  • Hospitals

How Much Do Marriage and Family Therapists Make?

A variety of factors influence earning potential for marriage and family therapists, including geographic location, educational attainment, and experience. The table below outlines the increase in average earnings as therapists gain experience in the field.

Marriage and Family Therapy Degree Programs

Graduates of marriage and family therapy programs qualify for different jobs depending on their degree level, but they need at least a master's to practice. Though less common, some schools offer bachelor's programs in marriage and family therapy to prepare students for graduate studies.

Online Marriage and Family Therapy Degree Programs

Earning a marriage and family therapy degree online can allow working students the flexibility to meet professional obligations while earning a degree. Online learners typically complete coursework at their convenience, from anywhere. Additionally, distance learners often save money on costs related to on-campus housing and transportation.

Online programs generally have the same admission and degree requirements as on-campus programs. Many distance programs follow the same curriculum as the school's on-campus program.

Factors to Consider When Selecting a Marriage and Family Therapy Program

Learners researching marriage and family therapy programs should consider a variety of factors to ensure they choose the program that best suits their needs. Students should research each prospective school's accreditation status, tuition costs, reputation, and online course availability.


Accreditation indicates that a school's academic programs maintain high levels of rigor and quality. Accreditation involves review by an independent agency and demonstrates the institution meets set standards of quality. Many employers only recognize degrees earned from accredited schools. Schools in the U.S. can hold national or regional accreditation. Regional accreditation is more common and more prestigious, while national accreditation is often reserved for vocational schools.

Most states require marriage and family therapists to hold a degree from an accredited school. Additionally, states commonly require therapists to have completed a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Education also provides specialized accreditation for marriage and family therapy programs.


When choosing a marriage and family therapy program, students should consider the overall cost of a program. The most affordable schools are typically in-state public institutions; private and out-of-state schools generally have higher tuition rates. Delivery format also impacts overall cost. Online learners may pay lower tuition rates, and distance students typically save money on transportation and housing costs.

On-Campus vs. Online

Marriage and family therapy programs typically require some in-person components, such as an internship or practicum. Online learners generally complete these experiences locally. However, some students pursue hybrid programs, which include both online and on-campus courses. Consider your lifestyle and schedule when choosing between on-campus and online programs.

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