Teen daughter in family therapy

How to Become a Marriage Counselor in California

A marriage counselor in California is typically a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT), a specialized area of counseling that emphasizes improving relationships and resolving conflicts within families and couples.

Marriage and family therapy helps couples and families understand and manage relationship problems. In addition to marriage counseling, MFTs treat various clinical problems, including depression, anxiety, individual psychological problems, and child-parent issues.

In marriage and family therapy, the “unit of treatment” isn’t just the person but rather the set of relationships in which a person is embedded, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

Entering this field requires earning a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy, passing licensure exams, and meeting clinical hour requirements.

A Focus on the Impact of Relationships

MFT is typically brief, solution-focused on attainable therapeutic goals, and designed with an endpoint in mind. This immediately differentiates it from other forms of therapy, which typically are open-ended and ongoing.

Marriage and family therapy also differs from other mental health professions because it focuses on treating couples, families, and the family as a system, addressing present-day problems rather than historical or intrapsychic conflicts along with understanding interpersonal relationships as a way of identifying and treating mental health problems.

MFT is based on the belief that complex interactions between family members often cause problems within a family or relationship. The therapist works with the family or couple to identify these patterns, develop strategies to resolve conflicts and improve communication between the couple or family members.

A Systems Approach

MFT therapists are trained to address the complex dynamics of family and couple relationships and to provide targeted strategies to help families and couples improve communication and resolve conflicts. MFT focuses on relationships, while other mental health disciplines may focus more broadly on individual mental health.

In addressing these issues, MFT takes a systems approach. The therapist considers the entire family or relationship system rather than focusing solely on the individual. This approach recognizes that changes in one family member can impact the entire family system.

MFT uses specific techniques and strategies to improve relationships and communication between families and couples. These may include family therapy sessions, couple’s therapy, and individual therapy sessions with specific family members.

The need for professionals with specialized marriage and family education continues to increase. The most recent federal data projects a 14 percent increase in MFT positions over the next decade. California employs more than 25,870 marriage and family therapists – by far the highest in the country (New Jersey is second at 4.120). MFTs in the Golden State also earn an average annual salary of $59,320, which is higher than the national average.

Becoming an MFT in California

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AMFT) notes, “Historically, marriage and family therapists have come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds, including psychology, psychiatry, social work, nursing, pastoral counseling, and education.”

However, becoming a licensed marriage counselor in California requires meeting a rigid set of requirements, according to information provided by the AMFT.

AMFT Registration

The first step is completing the requirements for the AMFT registration. Those requirements include earning a master’s or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy or a related topic with equivalent coursework from a regionally-accredited or COAMFTE-accredited program.

The program must include six-semester or nine-quarter units of practicum, with a minimum of 150 hours of direct client contact. It must also include 75 hours of either client-centered advocacy or face-to-face counseling experience.

Applicants must also have a plan established to complete work experience and supervision hours. Applicants must pass the California Law and Ethics exam. If an applicant fails the exam, they must retake it for each registration renewal until passed.

The state requires renewal of the registration annually for up to six years.

Marriage and Family Therapist License Requirements

Once an applicant completes the requirements for the AMFT registration, they must pass the California MFT exam (and have passed the California Law and Ethics exam). Applicants must also complete two years of post-degree work experience as an MFT. This includes:

  • At least 3,000 hours of supervised experience over at least 104 weeks,
  • At least 1,700 hours must be earned post-degree (up to 1,300 hours obtained during graduate training may count towards this requirement).
  • At least 1,750 hours of direct counseling to individuals, groups, couples, or families (at least 500 of these hours must be families, couples, or children).
  • Up to 1,250 hours of nonclinical practice,
  • One hour of direct supervisor contact is required for every five hours of client contact. No more than six hours of supervision shall be credited during any single week.

The federal government designates marriage and family therapy as a core mental health profession, along with psychiatry, psychology, social work, and psychiatric nursing. Currently, all 50 states support and regulate the profession by licensing marriage and family therapists.

Touro University Worldwide Marriage and Family Therapist Programs

The first step toward becoming a marriage and family therapist is earning an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy. The TUW MFT program is conceptually grounded by the scientist-practitioner model and designed to produce graduates who will make unique contributions to marriage and family therapy.

The TUW program has COAMFTE accreditation, meaning TUW’s program meets or exceeds established MFT program standards and criteria. It also indicates TUW faculty actively contribute to the body of knowledge in the MFT field.

Students attending a COAMFTE-accredited MFT program understand they will receive a quality education from a respected school that meets rigorous academic standards. They also know the program will prepare them for licensure as marriage and family therapists and for state and national exams. Accreditation also facilitates the attainment of a state license by allowing graduates to present a recognized qualifying degree.

The TUW online MFT degree program also offers students the convenience and flexibility of an online program, allowing professionals to earn a graduate degree while maintaining professional and personal obligations. For those aspiring to work in marriage and family therapy, the graduate program is an essential step to attaining MFT licensure.

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