What Does a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Do?
Navigating relationships with family members can be tricky, which is why close to 1.8 million1 people currently look to licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) for help. As one of the common branches of psychotherapy in today’s health care system, marriage and family therapy melds core clinical competencies2 acquired through education and training with a range of soft skills to bring a family-centered perspective to treatment, even for individuals.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), you may want to start by answering some simple questions—like “What is an LMFT?” or “What does an LMFT do?” and “What makes this career worthwhile?”
This page covers some general information about this profession, to help you determine whether MFT therapy is the right career choice for you.
What Does Someone With an MFT License Do?
Before exploring how to become an LMFT, you may want to consider the position’s primary responsibilities and functions. On a day-to-day basis, marriage and family therapists may be responsible for helping individuals, couples and family members work through interpersonal conflicts and struggles using a variety of techniques—from cognitive behavioral therapy to crisis management. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the main duties of LMFTs include:
- Encouraging clients to discuss their emotions and experiences.
- Helping clients process emotions and adjust to difficult life changes, like divorce or layoffs.
- Guiding clients through the process of making decisions about their future.
- Helping clients develop coping strategies and skills to change their behavior.
- Completing and maintaining confidential files and records.
- Referring clients to other resources or services in the community, such as support groups or inpatient treatment facilities.
Does this list of tasks inspire you? Then, you may be interested in learning about the process of becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist. LMFT licensure requirements may vary by state. But typically, applicants must complete a master’s degree program in marriage & family therapy or a related mental health field, as well supervised clinical experience. Then, they’ll have to pass a licensing exam administered by their state board.
Students who are currently evaluating on-campus or online master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy may also consider counseling as a viable career option. Counseling is a broad title that generally refers to any professional guidance that promotes the wellbeing or mental health of a client. For some, the line between therapist vs counselor may be blurred. That’s no surprise since both the therapist and counselor may cover similar topics in school, have the opportunity to specialize and acquire field experience before licensing. LMFT training however, is “intensely clinical” as one American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) blog post puts it. Required clinical hours can vary greatly by state, and will require a substantial amount of direct contact hours, students should research the requirements of the state they wish to practice in.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Job Settings
Where do LMFTs work? After graduating from an MFT graduate program and going through the licensing process, you may consider a number of potential work environments, where you’ll be able to put your newly acquired knowledge and skills to use. From outpatient care centers to government agencies, an LMFT career may afford you opportunities to work with clients of different backgrounds and address a range of issues.
Where Do Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists Work?
Practicing LMFTs can be found in a variety of settings. According to BLS data, some common work settings for LMFTs are:
- Individual and family services. LMFTs who work for individual and family services establishments may provide therapeutic care for individuals or groups as part of a larger practice.
- Offices of other health practitioners. Rather than own their own practice, some licensed marriage and family therapists choose to work in the office of another health care provider—like a psychologist, psychiatrist or other related role.
- Outpatient care centers. LMFTs working in outpatient health care facilities provide a level of advanced treatment as is administered in hospitals and in-patient facilities, without necessitating an overnight stay.
- Private practice or self-employed. Private practice LMFTs conduct their practice without additional oversight. Sessions with groups and individuals may be held in a private office, virtually/remotely, or through in-home visits.
- State government. Therapists who provide social services at the state level may work as part of state-run, affordable health care and wellness programs. This does not include schools or religious settings.
What Career Paths Are Possible With an MFT Degree?
Whether you graduate in-person from an accredited school or obtain a counseling degree online, there are a variety of career paths to choose from within the field of marriage and family therapy.
However, depending on what kind of clinical experience you are looking for, you may need to consider further schooling, such as a master’s, or obtain additional licensure before meeting your career goals. Here are a few possible career options for LMFTs—and the requirements for each path:
- Licensed Therapy/Counseling. Graduating from an MFT program doesn’t mean you’re ready to enter the field. All marriage and family therapists are required to pass a state licensure exam after graduation and completion of supervised practice hours in order to legally practice. Once you have your license in hand, you may look for jobs in any of the settings listed above. When it comes to MFT clients, you have a number of options too. You might find yourself working with adolescents struggling with depression or bullying on social media, a couple navigating the adoption process, or a family facing immigration challenges.
- Psychology/Psychiatry. Marriage and family therapists who are interested in expanding their current practice or transitioning into a related role that potentially affords prescriptive abilities may decide to pursue an advanced degree like a doctorate or master’s in psychology, master’s in clinical psychology or master’s in psychiatry. Note that scope of work and prescriptive authority will depend on the role and license that you’re after.
- Social Work. Social work is another potential option for those who are considering a career related to marriage and family therapy. An MFT degree and social work degree may cover different topics, but helping others to improve the overall quality of their mental health is at the core of both professions. LCSW is a community-oriented career and involves practicing clinical therapy or counseling as part of private or government-run practices, clinics, schools, child welfare and human services programs, hospitals and community development corporations.
How Does an LMFT Career Differ from Related Careers?
There are quite a few careers in the mental health field that share similarities. Maybe you’ve seen terms like psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist and counselor before and wondered: what’s the difference? Here is some information that may help you draw lines between these related professions:
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists vs. Licensed Clinical Social Workers. LMFTs typically hold a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, while clinical social workers hold a Master of Social Work. The MFT degree program prepares students to offer family-centric psychotherapy to future clients. By contrast, LCSW curriculum and services may extend to community work, the public policy arena and other areas.
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists vs. Clinical Psychologists. As previously mentioned, LMFTs are typically required to complete a master’s in marriage and family therapy. Alternatively, psychologists need a doctoral degree in psychology to practice in a clinical setting. In practice, the two jobs may look similar in terms of methodology and treatment. However, psychologists have a more developed understanding of mental illnesses and are more likely to diagnose patients or pursue academic research.
- Marriage counseling vs. family counseling. Marriage and family counseling may seem like an amalgamation of two distinct clinical areas of expertise. However, marriage therapy and family therapy are often closely connected. A number of clinicians who practice one, may also practice the other. In practice, marriage therapy helps couples and spouses deal with interpersonal relationships that may be affecting an entire household.
Using a range of techniques, LMFTs may also work with clients and groups on other types of familial relationships. According to Dr. Matthew Bruhin, a California-based LMFT, these techniques include narrative therapy, transgenerational therapy, communication theory and psychoeducation.
LMFT Job Outlook
According to the BLS, the projected job growth for marriage and family therapists is 16% from 2020 to 2030. For social workers, counselors and other community service professionals, a more modest job growth of around 14% is expected during the same time period. And for comparison, all occupations are expected to increase by 8% within the decade.
What Can Affect an LMFT Salary?
Licensed marriage and family therapist salaries may vary depending on the therapist’s:
- Work environment
- Job function
- Experience level
- LMFT specializations
- State of residence
For instance, data from the BLS shows that LMFTs employed by the state government made a median annual salary of $78,450 in 2020, while those who work in outpatient care centers earned $55,690. As a group, the highest 10% of all LMFTs earned more than $92,930. The lowest 10% on the other hand, made LMFT salaries of less than $33,140.
Licensed MFT Specializations
There are a variety of emotional and behavioral challenges that may show up in relationships between couples and family members. LMFTs who have a specific interest in a subject within the field of marriage and family therapy may want to consider specializing. Here are some of the potential specialty areas:
- Grief and trauma
- Depression and anxiety
- Substance abuse
- Sexual orientation
- Anger management
If there is a specialization that you are particularly interested in, you may want to look for accredited MFT programs that offer a related track.
What Is the Average Salary for a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist?
As mentioned, licensed marriage and family therapist salary may vary slightly depending on factors like geography, specialization or work environment. However, the median LMFT salary according to 2020 BLS data is approximately $51,3403.
In general, the median annual salary for all mental health counselors is slightly lower, at $46,240.
In-Demand Cities for Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Jobs
As we’ve discussed, the demand for marriage and family therapy jobs in the U.S. is expected to rise in the coming years. Geography is one of the factors that plays a role in determining just how many MFT careers are available in any given location. Cities, in particular, have historically been hotbeds for a prospective MFT job.
Here are a few cities with the highest employment level of MFTs, according to the 2021 Occupational Employment and Wage profile for marriage and family therapists from the BLS:
Employment (per thousand jobs)
Annual Mean Wage (2021)
Explore These States for Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy Careers
The demand for LMFT jobs varies from state to state. Job and salary outlook for marriage and family therapy careers depends on where you live, among other factors. If you’re trying to determine where to kickstart your professional journey, you may want to consider LMFT careers in the states listed in the table.
These states have the highest employment level of MFTs, according to the 2021 Occupational Employment and Wage profile for marriage and family therapists from the BLS:
Employment (per thousand jobs)
Annual mean wage (2021)
Is a Licensed MFT Career Worth It?
There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to choosing a career—like salary, training and education requirements, or job outlook. Mental health care isn’t for everyone, but becoming an LMFT may have its perks. In addition to a growing job market, above-average salaries and diverse work environments, an MFT career may offer a self-gratifying career path to those who are interested in mental health care and enjoy helping others live healthier and more fulfilling lives.
Alternative Careers for Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists
LMFTs occupy a subsection of all mental health care providers. Before you decide if LMFT is the right career for you, there are a few similar careers and degree programs that might be worth exploring. They include:
- Counseling degree programs. These programs, some of which are offered online or in a blended format, cover a range of topics including counseling over the lifespan, counseling theories, group counseling, counseling diverse communities and more. Opportunities to specialize are available—choose from rehabilitation counseling, school counseling or an online master’s in mental health counseling.
- Psychology degree programs. Psychology degrees prepare students for jobs in a variety of fields including industrial/organizational psychology. These programs are designed to teach students to apply core concepts of psychology to normal and abnormal individual, social, cultural and organizational functioning. Students may choose to complete their master’s in psychology online.
- Master of Clinical Psychology. Considering a career in therapy, forensic psychology or consulting? This degree may help to set you on that path—from learning about psychotherapy to psychoanalysis to cognitive rehabilitation.
- Master of Social Work. Schools. Nonprofits. Mental health clinics. Military bases. These are just a few of the places where social workers can be found, providing care to individuals and groups going through challenging life situations. Through field experience, core classes and elective courses, MSW students dive deep into the wide-ranging field of social work.
- Master of Applied Behavior Analysis. Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, applies the principles and theories derived from studying behavior to solve social, behavioral and learning problems. By completing classes like ABA in Complex Community Environments as well as a practicum, you’ll gain relevant knowledge to pursue roles like teacher or ABA therapist.
Ultimately, the path you take in your career depends on your personal goals and interests. Mental health is a diverse field with a wide selection of specializations and potential job functions. Exploring all of your options can be helpful to your decision-making process.
1“What Is Marriage and Family Therapy?” American Association for Marriage and Family Therapistsarrow_upward
2“Core Clinical Competencies for Family Therapists Working in Healthcare Settings.” The AAMFT Blog, 5 Mar. 2018arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference
3“Marriage and Family Therapists: Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 Sept. 2020arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference
Last updated April 2022.