What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

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.

  • Structural Therapy

    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.

  • Systemic Therapy

    This technique analyzes problems in terms of interpersonal dynamics and communication.

  • Transgenerational Therapy

    To understand the family's deepest issues and to anticipate future ones, this technique analyzes multigenerational interactions.

  • Strategic Therapy

    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.

  • Narrative Therapy

    This technique intends to empower individuals to use narratives to identify themselves and solve their own problems.

  • Communication Therapy

    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.

  • Relationship Counseling

    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.

Marriage and Family Therapy Techniques

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.

Benefits of Marriage and Family Therapy

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.

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.

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