Marriage & Family Therapist: Your Relationship Counseling Specialist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is a marriage and family therapist?

A marriage and family therapist specializes in diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and substance-related problems in the context of families and relationships. A marriage and family therapist focuses on the well-being of individuals, couples and families. Marriage and family therapists help people of all ages deal with psychological problems, relationship problems, and life crises.

In providing care, a marriage and family therapist typically:

  • Gathers information about a client’s or family’s medical history, mental health status, living situation, employment or school status and performance, and history of substance abuse treatment

  • Devises a treatment plan to determine an individual’s or family’s particular support needs during treatment

  • Provides talk therapy for individuals, couples, families and groups

  • Helps manage medication usage (with supervision from a doctor, such as a primary care doctor or psychiatrist), helps determine if the medication is working, and monitors side effects

  • Consults with other members of a patient’s or family’s support team including doctors, social workers, home healthcare nurses, lawyers, welfare care workers, occupational therapists, and substance abuse counselors

Marriage and family therapists may also be known by the following names: MFT, marriage and family counselors; marriage, family and child counselors; couples counselors; couples therapists; and marital and family therapists.

Who should see a marriage and family therapist?

Anyone in an interpersonal relationship who has concerns about the health of the relationship or themselves should consider seeing a marriage and family therapist. As core mental health providers, marriage and family therapists can help with a wide variety of mental and emotional problems. Because they are relationship specialists, they have a holistic approach to these problems that takes into account the well-being of everyone involved.

Marriage and family therapists can help you work through problems coping with everyday life, a traumatic or shocking event, loss or death of a loved one, or adjusting to a life change. They can also help if you are abusing drugs or alcohol, or are depressed, anxious, or suffering from an eating disorder.

When should you see a marriage and family therapist?

Consider seeking care from a marriage and family therapist if you or your child develops any of the following symptoms or conditions:

  • Difficulties with relationships between spouses, children, siblings, or extended family

  • Difficulties during times of major life transition, such as death, birth, adoption or divorce, or a move or change to a new school or career<

  • Difficulty functioning in work, school, or everyday life<

  • Changes in eating habits, such as binge eating or using laxatives or vomiting to lose weight

  • Repeated abuse of alcohol or drugs

  • Sexual acting out or other unusual behaviors

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep, changes in sleep patterns, or having nightmares or flashbacks<

  • Inappropriate or violent behaviors towards yourself or others, such as temper tantrums, severe mood swings, frequent outbursts of anger, self-injury, or thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself or others

  • Social withdrawal, feeling isolated or detached from others, or difficulty establishing or maintaining relationships

  • Unusual sadness, anxiety, panic, stress, or depressed feelings that will not go away

You should seek immediate help from a mental health provider (counselor, social worker, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist) or call 911 if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, or if someone you know is considering suicide.

What conditions and diseases does a marriage and family therapist treat?

A marriage and family therapist treats a variety of mental and emotional health conditions including:

  • Abuse and neglect including past or present physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and child or elder neglect

  • Addictions including alcoholism and alcohol abuse, and drug, sex, gambling, gaming and internet addictions

  • Anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias

  • Dementia including loss of memory, language and personality and the effects on family and caregiver roles, relationships, and emotions

  • Developmental and disruptive behavior disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD), conduct disorder, delinquency, and oppositional defiant disorder

  • Eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder

  • Emotional difficulties including grief, stress, anger, low self-esteem, sleep problems, and problems dealing with life transitions

  • Mental disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, adjustment disorders, and sexual and gender identity disorders

  • Relationship issues including marital problems, infidelity, intimacy issues, separation, divorce, remarriage, infertility, adoption, parenting issues, and problems between parents, children or other family members

When finding an experienced and licensed marriage and family therapist, take into consideration whether a provider has specific expertise in the your particular issue.

What tests does a marriage and family therapist perform?

A marriage and family therapist can perform or order certain tests. Tests vary greatly depending on the therapeutic specialty, the setting, the therapist’s level of training, and whether the therapist is treating an adult or child. Most tests take the form of patient interviews, written assessments and inventories, and direct observation. Tests may include:

  • Interpersonal functioning tests including evaluation and measurement of how family members and couples relate with one another and with their environment

  • Mental health assessments and evaluations including tests to identify mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, and evaluate treatment progress

  • Personality tests including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

  • Substance abuse tests

    including alcohol and drug evaluations

  • Suicide risk assessments including suicide checklists

  • Trauma and abuse assessments including abuse checklists and evaluation and measurement of post-traumatic stress factors

What services does a marriage and family therapist provide?

Marriage and family therapists provide various services and treatments to manage mental, emotional and behavioral health conditions. As relationship specialists, marriage and family therapists focus their treatments on the entire family and the well-being of everyone involved. Common services marriage and family therapists provide include:

  • Clinical assessment including diagnosing and treating mental and emotional disorders or challenges, and determining ongoing support needs

  • Couples counseling including premarital education, marital enrichment, unmarried partner counseling, and marriage counseling

  • Family and group counseling including support group therapy, abuse recovery, conflict resolution, crisis intervention, family preservation, foster care placement, parenting education, attachment therapy, and identifying and breaking dysfunctional patterns

  • Individual counseling including life coaching, social skill development, psychotherapy, and exploration of relationships, such as family, work, social and community systems, either with or without the people involved

  • Involuntary commitment to a hospital or mental institution if the patient is at risk of hurting him or herself or others

Marriage and family therapist training and certification

When choosing a marriage and family therapist, state licensing should be one of your first priorities. In the United States, the states regulate and license marriage and family therapists. State licensing requirements to practice marriage and family therapy vary somewhat from state to state. However, most states require that a marriage and family therapist has:

  • Completed a master’s or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy from an accredited graduate program

  • Completed two years of postgraduate, supervised professional marriage and family therapy experience

  • Passed a state marriage and family therapy licensing examination or the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board's (AMFTRB) Examination in Marital and Family Therapy

Most states require participation in continuing education activities in order to maintain marriage and family therapy licensure.

Was this helpful?
  1. MFT Exam Info. Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.  
  2. Marriage and Family Therapist: The Family-Friendly Mental Health Professionals. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
  3. Marriage and Family Therapists. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.  
  4. About Marriage and Family Therapists. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.  
  5. What You Should Know About Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists and Their Services. New York State Education Department.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 2
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