Marriage and family therapy emerged in the 1950s through the work of Murray Bowen, Milton Erickson, Jay Haley, and Virginia Satir. Experimenting with new approaches that went beyond individual therapy, these psychoanalysts and psychiatrists understood that family systems and shifting familial dynamics can improve a client's mental and emotional wellbeing.
Even when working with a single client, family therapy focuses on the client's relationship systems. By analyzing and changing family interactions, marriage and family therapy helps clients cope with issues such as major life transitions, financial problems, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, divorce, poor communication, and child behavior. Usually, marriage and family therapy offers a more specific, solution-oriented, and shorter-term approach to therapy than individual therapy.
How Does Marriage and Family Therapy Work?
Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) use the understanding of family systems and other theories to create holistic treatment approaches that address specific, family-related issues. By analyzing family roles, habits, and other patterns, marriage and family therapy increases client awareness of how these dynamics generate interpersonal problems. MFTs encourage skillful, intentional shifts in family dynamics as a strategy for alleviating these problems.
Marriage and family therapy's goals sometimes conflict with individual therapy's goals. For example, in abusive relationships, maintaining the cohesion of the family demands too much individual sacrifice from some members. In such cases, the individual needs to create boundaries (or even abdicate) his/her current familial role, which may make it difficult to meet the original, collective goals created by the family.
Overall, however, marriage and family therapy typically yields excellent results, proving at least as successful as other therapeutic approaches.
What Are the Goals of Marriage and Family Therapy?
Many individual and interpersonal conflicts originate because of differences between family members' values, perceptions, and communication or relationship styles. Constant fighting and arguing over these differences tend to create alienation, so marriage and family therapy often works to reduce fighting between family members. Although some differences may prove irreconcilable, many conflicts derive from communication problems that families can resolve through learning and practicing new communication skills.
marriage and family therapy improves interpersonal relationships by clarifying and reconciling differences in members' values, styles, and perceptions
Many couples seek marriage and family therapy as a means of preventing conflicts from escalating into separation or divorce. Although couples often do not seek therapy until their relationships reach a near-breaking point, marriage and family therapy still manages to save some relationships, provided that both partners commit to reconciliation.
Overall, marriage and family therapy improves interpersonal relationships by clarifying and reconciling differences in members' values, styles, and perceptions, and by providing tools for families to build healthy, happy relationships.
Marriage and Family Therapy Techniques
Often holistic in approach, marriage and family therapy often incorporates a number of therapeutic techniques and approaches. According to Premier Mind Institute, some of the most common approaches include psychoeducation, structural therapy, systemic therapy, transgenerational therapy, strategic therapy, narrative therapy, communication therapy, and relationship counseling. Therapists can also work to destigmatize conditions , the therapist helps to destigmatize those condition(s), support medication and treatment, and offer self-help training.
Focusing on interactions rather than individual psychologies, this therapy technique analyzes family structure and identity, encouraging families to form stronger bonds and release restrictive patterns.
This technique analyzes problems in terms of interpersonal dynamics and communication.
To understand the family's deepest issues and to anticipate future ones, this technique analyzes multigenerational interactions.
Creating a structured process designed to heal and strengthen the family, this technique moves families through five therapeutic stages: social, problem, interactional, goal-setting, and task-setting.
This technique intends to empower individuals to use narratives to identify themselves and solve their own problems.
One of the most essential tools of MFTs, this technique encourages mediated communication, active listening, and the opening of communication lines. Communication therapy often plays a role in untangling issues caused by cultural differences, trauma, mental health, and deception.
Couples facing stressors, such as chronic illness, financial difficulty, intimacy or trust issues, often warrant relationship counseling, which helps couples decide whether to stay together and how to improve their relationships.
Issues Treated by Marriage and Family Therapy
Marriage and family therapy frequently supports individuals or families facing physical, mental, emotional, and relational problems such as depression, chronic illness, substance abuse, marital strife, financial stress, and behavioral problems.
Marriage and family therapy generates very high client satisfaction rates (upward of 98% in some studies), with clients reporting significant improvement across the family, work, social, and personal dimensions of their lives.
Parent and Child Conflict
Many parents seek out family therapy because they do not feel equipped to handle chronic conflict or other dynamics dominating their relationships to their children. Therapists serve as valuable mediators in these cases, meeting with family members separately and together, and coaching the family to communicate more effectively with one another.
During therapy, the child's hidden feelings may come to light, helping the parents to understand their child. The therapist aids in identifying the resources and skills the family needs to shift its expectations and better support one another.
Although anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders sometimes have genetic- or personality-based causes, these disorders also frequently arise in response to unhealthy interpersonal dynamics in families. Furthermore, family members may feel lost in how to help the family member experiencing the emotional disorder.
Marriage and family therapists typically provide psychoeducation around the nature of the emotional disorder, encourage the emotionally disordered individuals to obtain adequate treatment, and coach families in ways to support their suffering family member. Often multiple emotional disorders occur in the same family, and the therapeutic process can help identify the struggles and needs of less obviously disordered (and often neglected) members as well.
Marital and Couple Problems
Marriage and family therapy guides couples in addressing conflict and other issues in their relationships. By encouraging couples to view one another more objectively and open-mindedly, marriage and family therapy often shifts the couple's attitudes toward the relationship.
In addition to helping alter dysfunctional behaviors, marriage and family therapy brings couples closer by teaching them to communicate more supportively, honestly, and positively. Mediated communication via the therapist often opens lines of communication and allows the couple to identify and express private feelings they previously feared sharing with their partner.
Substance abuse typically affects everyone in a family, creating tremendous resentment, blame, conflict, emotional avoidance, and financial stress. Marriage and family therapy not only supports addicted individuals to get treatment, but it also educates the addict's family as to the nature of the condition and its effects. Because family members often develop codependency issues in relation to their addicted member(s), the MFT also typically educates the family on the illness and treatment of codependency.
Child Behavioral Issues
Children develop behavior problems for a variety of reasons, so marriage and family therapy helps identify the underlying causes of those. With the help of the MFT, the family creates treatment plans and practices that address core causes -- particularly those rooted in the family system and dynamics.
The therapist often encourages the couple or the child to attend therapy sessions separately as well as together, in order to determine and address the specific situations triggering the behavioral problems.
How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist
To become a marriage and family therapist, one needs to obtain a master's or doctoral degree in the subject and accrue two years or more of supervised clinical experience providing therapeutic support to clients. Master's degrees usually take 2-3 years, doctoral programs take 3-5 years, and post-graduate training typically takes another 3-4 years.
Therapists also must obtain licensure, passing background checks and a licensure exam from the state where they wish to practice and/or from the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.
- Marriage and Family Therapy Programs
- Marriage and Family Therapy Master's Degrees
- Marriage and Family Therapy Ph.D. Degrees
How to Find a Marriage and Family Therapist
If therapy costs feel somewhat prohibitive, families should start by considering marriage and family therapists within their managed care network. Seeking recommendations from family, friends, or even a local university's psychology department can also help to locate a good therapist. When meeting with a prospective therapist for the first time, one should ask how the therapist would approach treatment for a particular issue and what role they would play in the therapy session.
- How to Find the Best Marriage and Family Therapist This site explains features to look for when selecting a marriage and family therapist. These include similar values, a goal orientation, feelings of comfort and respect, and familiarity with a therapeutic approach that will work for the specific issues you have in your relationship.
- Therapist Locator This locator tool allows individuals to search for marriage and family therapists who belong to the qualified pool of AAMFT clinical fellows -- marriage and family therapists who have met the AAMFT's strict education, training, and ethics requirements.