Couples Counselor - Marriage Therapy Career Information

Overview

By Dr. April McDowell, MFT
Counselor with a young couple during a session

All human relationships experience stress and conflict and couple relationships are no exception to this rule. When couples experience relationship problems, many seek professional help through counseling and therapy services. A couples counselor (also called a couples therapist, marriage counselor, and marriage therapist) evaluates relationship problems and offers strategies for resolving them using psychotherapy (also called “talk therapy”).

Couples counselors and therapists are licensed professionals who are often trained in several forms of counseling including individual, couples, and family counseling. However, counselors who work with couples may specialize in this form of therapy and obtain specific training, licenses, or certifications. For example, most states have licensed marriage and family therapists (MFTs) who have specific training in couples counseling and often specialize in this form of counseling. There are also models of couples counseling for which one may obtain a certificate to denote special clinical training. For example, one may become a Certified Gottman Therapist (CGT) by attending trainings offered by The Gottman Institute.

Therapist Types and Scope of Practice

There are several types of professionals who may provide couples counseling, including (but not limited to) licensed MFTs, psychologists, licensed professional counselors, and social workers. Of these, MFTs tend to have the most thorough and specific training in providing couples counseling, although other types of professionals may obtain specific training in this form of counseling.

Couples counselors and therapists focus on several areas to help couples repair their relationship. They diagnose relationship problems (as well as individual psychological issues that may be contributing to these problems); create treatment plans to treat those relationship problems; explore the dynamics involved in these problems and their causes (including past issues that may influence the present); and create new, more positive relationship experiences for couples. For example, many couples counselors teach communication skills to help repair current relationship problems and address future problems that may arise.

Couples-based counseling typically involves a finite number of sessions (typically between 45 to 90 minutes in duration) between the professional and the couple. During these sessions, the counselor will help the couple deal with their presenting issues such as communication problems, parenting issues, infidelity and trust issues, sexual problems, and substance abuse.

Couples counselors work with a myriad of other professionals to provide the best care for couples. For example, it is common to refer to and consult with psychiatrists, who hold M.D. degrees and can prescribe drugs for mental disorders. Couples counselors and therapists may also refer to and consult with other therapists who are providing individual therapy to their clients.

In addition to providing couples counseling services, many counselors provide other related services as well that put them in other types of work environments when not seeing clients. For example, many provide individual and family therapy services as well.  Some (especially those with doctorate degrees) teach and/or conduct research in university settings. It is also common for them to work as supervisors to other couples counselors and act as consultants for cases. Counselors may also provide online therapy and do speaking engagements (for instance, local or national educational conferences for other counselors and therapists).

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are currently about 30,000 therapists in the U.S. classified as marriage and family therapists. This data excludes psychologists and social workers, many of whom also provide couples counseling and therapy. Therefore, the actual number of such therapists is likely much higher.

The BLS reports that the average annual salary for couples counselors as MFTs is $51,730 and the average hourly wage is $24.87. Annual salaries for this type of therapist vary widely. For example, the data shows that MFTs in the 10th percentile of annual wages earn approximately $30k per year, while those in the 90th percentile earn approximately $78k per year. Those employed by state and local government agencies earn higher salaries on average than those employed by outpatient health care centers and individual/family service agencies.

More people are recognizing the benefits of couples counseling, so the job outlook for this career is positive, with an anticipated increase in the number of available positions. Additionally, a larger portion of the American public enjoys insurance coverage for counseling. The BLS forecasts a 31% job growth over the decade from 2012 to 2022 - much faster than the average growth rate.

According to the BLS, the areas with the highest number of MFTs across the U.S. include the Mid-Atlantic states, California, Texas, and Florida. The top five states with the most therapists of this type (in order from the most to least) are: California, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, and Virginia. Of these states, those in New Jersey average the highest salaries, making approximately $72k annually.

Requirements

Education

Marriage or couples counselors typically begin their educational career path with an undergraduate degree in psychology, social science, sociology, human development or family science. Some universities and colleges offer undergraduate relationship counseling programs, but very few. It is common for undergraduate students who wish to become couples counselors to gain experience during their undergraduate years by volunteering or completing internships in human service agencies, organizations, or companies.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree, an aspiring counselor typically applies to graduate programs that offer master’s degrees in psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy, or counseling. Most of these are two to three year programs that include classroom instruction, thesis projects, and internships or clinical residencies that offer direct training to provide counseling services under supervision from licensed counselors and therapists.

It is important that aspiring couples counselors and therapists find accredited programs for graduate school. This ensures high quality training for the field and helps gain state licensure post-graduation, as many state licensing boards require that you attend an accredited program to be considered for licensure. One of the major accrediting boards in this field is the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) provides a list of COAMFTE accredited programs in the U.S.

Licensing and/or Certification

All couples therapists working in the United States need to be licensed before they can practice. States have their own licensing requirements for these types of therapists. For example, those seeking to become a licensed MFT must take a nationally recognized Examination in Marital and Family Therapy in order to obtain clinical licensure.

Experiential and credential requisites (including two years of hands-on supervised clinical experience) must be met before sitting for the exam. Specialties recognized by various states include:

  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed Clinical Psychologist (LCP)

Many states require couples counselors to renew their licenses every year or every other year by taking additional courses or workshops or attending professional conferences. This enables a counselor to obtain continuing education credits (CEUs) that help maintain current licensure status.

Marriage counselors have the option of applying for certification by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Some states accept this credential in place of a state-administered license. In addition to their state license and/or NBCC credential, marriage counselors who meet the educational and training criteria can become members of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). The AAMFT hosts a national annual conference, publishes several professional journals, and sets professional and ethical standards for the field. Members are included in the AAMFT national professional database.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Communication strategies play a large role in couples counseling. Often, the two partners are used to talking at each other or responding defensively. Conflicts often involve painful emotions like betrayal, jealousy, anger, frustration, and disappointment, as well as painful issues like infidelity and financial strain. Relationship professionals utilize various methods to provide couples with the skills to effectively communicate needs, desires and wishes to each other. Being able to interact well with clients, demonstrate empathy, build trust, collaborate, and listen without judgment are just a few of the skills required.

Couples counselors need to know how to maintain professionalism with clients, perform administrative duties, and collaborate with other professionals to best serve clients. It is also important for couples counselors and therapists to stay abreast of the latest industry research and techniques and use them in practice to help clients reach their relationship goals. Furthermore, abiding by a professional code of ethics and keeping current with state licensure requirements are essentials.

Opportunities for Advancement

Counselors enjoy numerous avenues for advancement. Advancement in this career may be achieved by obtaining additional education and training – for example, moving from the master's degree level to the doctorate level. Counselors may also advance by specializing in particular issues or client populations. Some move from one type of setting to another for advancement. For example, you may move from private practice to a governmental agency or non-governmental organization that generates legislative policy affecting couples and families. An associate counselor in one practice may begin his or her own practice and hire other associates.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a couples counselor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Work Environment

Work environments vary widely among couples counselors and therapists. For example, some work in agencies that may be government-run, like the VA. Others work in community clinics that may be non-profits and funded by grants and donations. Meanwhile, other couples counselors and therapists work in private practices that are solo (single therapist) or group practices (with an owner and associate counselors/therapists). Decisions about work settings are usually based on factors such as local employment opportunities, desired work environment and schedule, and desired income.

Another aspect of the work environment is the client population for which couples counselors and therapists provide treatment. Some prefer to provide this type of counseling to a broad population, offering general counseling for common issues faced by couples. Others prefer to specialize in particular issues that couples face, attracting particular client populations. For example, regarding specialty issues, some couples counselors specialize in sex therapy for couples experiencing sexual problems in their relationship. Others focus on infidelity for couples that have experienced an affair. A couples therapist may specialize in same-sex couples; ethnic minority couples; couples who are recent immigrants; and couples from interracial, intercultural, or interfaith backgrounds.

Regarding work hours, couples counselors generally work regularly scheduled hours depending on the setting in which they work. Across different settings, it is typical to have scheduled appointment times (generally ranging from 45 to 90 minutes) for client sessions. It is not uncommon for couples counselors to work during both daytime and evening hours to accommodate client needs, and many work weekend hours as well. It is also not uncommon that off-time may require being on call for client psychological emergencies and crises.

When not providing counseling and therapy services, counselors must complete paperwork (e.g., session progress notes, insurance paperwork); answer phone calls and emails; complete administrative tasks related to their agency or company; and attend staff and/or supervisory meetings. Some work time is also spent attending industry conferences and workshops throughout each year, as it is important for couples counselors to stay current with the latest research and techniques within the profession.

Self-care and maintaining proper boundaries between work and home are critical areas for couples counselors and therapists. Without attention in these areas, “burnout” may occur, which decreases the amount and quality of care a counselor can provide to clients over time. Many rely on peer support to help with self-care and maintaining work-life balance (e.g., peer supervision or support groups).

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