Humans are social creatures and relationships give meaning to life. However, relationships can be challenging at times, particularly when partners have trouble seeing eye to eye. When couples and families are experiencing problems, they may choose to seek help from a marriage and family counselor.
If you have excellent problem-solving skills and enjoy working with people, you may be wondering how to become a marriage counselor. Clinical mental health counseling is a profession that does require some advanced training. However, it does not take as long to earn the necessary credentials for clinical mental health counseling as it does for careers in psychology. The process starts with learning more about this counseling specialization and then pursuing the necessary academic qualifications.
What Does a Marriage and Family Counselor Do?
Marriage is a special bond between soulmates, but communication challenges, disagreements and other issues do arise from time to time. When couples are experiencing interpersonal problems, they may turn to a marriage counselor for help.
Marriage counselors are best known for conducting therapy sessions with couples, but their role extends beyond this. They also work with entire families. For example, a professional may counsel children who are coping with the divorce of their parents, siblings who frequently argue with each other, parents who are coping with childhood defiance, and other interpersonal family conflicts.
Sometimes, marital and family problems arise from or are complicated by the presence of mental illnesses, such as depression, substance abuse or oppositional defiant disorder. A marriage and family counselor can evaluate clients for these mental illnesses and develop appropriate treatment plans that help the individual work toward recovery while also strengthening the family dynamic.
Every day is different in the life of a marriage therapist. Some of the most common tasks can include the following:
- Facilitate calm, nonjudgmental discussions about the clients’ experiences and emotions within a safe environment.
- Empower couples and other family members to see situations from each other’s point of view to broaden their perspectives and nurture empathy.
- Teach effective coping skills that allow clients to manage their problems (e.g., anger management).
- Guide clients as they navigate life transitions and make important decisions.
In short, a marriage counselor helps clients work through problems and miscommunications to grow both as individuals and as members of the family unit. When necessary, a marriage and family therapist will refer clients to outside resources in the community. These may include support groups, substance abuse treatment centers or inpatient treatment facilities.
How To Become a Marriage Counselor: An Overview
You can begin to learn how to become a marriage counselor as early as high school if you wish. Talk to your guidance counselor about taking on counseling-related subjects, such as psychology, if they are offered at your school. You should also focus on mathematics and life sciences, including biology.
However, do not neglect your general education courses. Your humanities classes will help you become a better communicator, which is crucial for marriage and family counselors. History is also important, as a broad worldview and increased cultural awareness will lend themselves to more meaningful and impactful interactions with your clients.
After high school, the next step in the process of how to become a marriage counselor is to earn your undergraduate degree. Choose a degree program that is relevant to the counseling and psychology field. After you graduate from a bachelor’s degree program, you will need to earn a master’s degree in counseling and then obtain your professional license before you are ready to practice.
Earning an Undergraduate Marriage Counselor Degree
The first academic credential you will need to become a marriage and family counselor is a relevant undergraduate degree. There is no universal bachelor’s degree that all counselors must earn. Rather, there are a few choices to consider, including degrees in the following areas:
- Behavioral health science
- Social work
If you already know that you want to go into clinical mental health counseling, then it may be best to earn a counseling degree. However, if you might be interested in becoming a psychologist or social worker, then you might consider earning a degree in those fields instead. Depending on the school you attend, you may be able to specialize in a particular subfield of these undergraduate degrees, but you can also opt for a general degree without a specialization.
The curriculum will vary, depending on your school and the particular program you select. In general, however, you may study any of the following topics:
- Historical and theoretical perspectives on couples and family systems and the impact of mental illness and substance abuse
- Theoretical approaches to counseling, including cognitive and behavioral therapy
- Cultural sensitivity and cultural competencies in counseling settings
- The psychosocial, emotional, physical and cognitive aspects of adult development and aging
- Social and group factors that can influence individual behavioral patterns, including group processes, social awareness and societal roles
Many psychology and counseling professors were active psychologists or counselors who worked directly with clients before joining academia. During your studies, you should cultivate a working relationship with your professors by visiting office hours to discuss the class materials and your career plans. Professors are generally highly receptive to students who wish to discuss their futures, and you can receive sound advice from them.
Earning a Master’s Degree in Counseling
As you approach the graduation date for your undergraduate program, you will need to start researching master’s degree programs in counseling. All marriage and family counselors are required to earn at least a master’s degree to obtain a state license. Be sure to double-check the licensure requirements for the state in which you plan to practice to ensure that you will be able to meet them with the master’s degree program you select.
Although there is generally some flexibility in selecting an undergraduate program (e.g., choosing a degree in social work, psychology or behavioral health science), it’s important to choose a master’s degree program that is more closely aligned with the marriage and family counseling field. This will better prepare you to pursue licensure and tackle the challenges you will face in your practice. Your master’s degree will allow you to deeply investigate topic areas such as:
- The development of counseling techniques and the counseling process
- Building and maintaining a rapport with clients, with an eye toward collaborative treatment
- The structure and dynamics of the family, including the methodologies for marital and couples intervention and counseling
- Clinical mental health assessments and treatment program development
- Psychological and behavioral dysfunctions in psychiatric disorders
At the undergraduate level, an internship may be encouraged but not required. At the graduate level, a set number of internship or practicum hours will be required. This allows you to meet both your graduation requirements and the criteria for licensure.
During your practicum or internship experience, you will be required to complete a certain number of hours of direct client contact, along with other counseling-related activities. Be sure to document all of your hours as you complete them. These experiences allow you to obtain hands-on, real-world experience in a counseling environment under your clinical supervisor.
Throughout your time working with your clinical supervisor, it is wise to take thorough notes and ask lots of questions. Work on applying the techniques and methodologies that you learned in class.
Should You Earn a Doctoral Degree in Counseling?
Unlike psychologists, marriage and family counselors are not generally required to earn a doctoral degree to obtain the necessary license to practice. This means you can begin your career as a counselor much more quickly than if you’d chosen to pursue a career as a psychologist. However, some marriage counselors do opt to pursue a PhD.
A PhD would add to your professional credentials and might increase your employment prospects. You would also have the opportunity to add original research to the body of knowledge in the field. Plus, marriage counselors who hold a doctoral degree may be qualified to teach at the university level.
As you can see, there are a few reasons why you might consider pursuing a PhD in counseling. Also, note that some continuing education courses are required to renew your state license.
Obtaining Your State Counseling License
The last step in the process of how to become a marriage counselor is to obtain your professional license. The state in which you plan to practice will spell out the requirements for obtaining a counseling license on the website of its relevant board. For example, in Arizona, you will apply for a license through the Arizona State Board of Behavioral Health Examiners.
The exact process and required documentation vary from one state to the next, but in general, you should expect to need the following:
- Information about your college degrees, including curriculum details
- Official transcripts
- Documentation of your practicum or internship hours
- Verification of your practicum or internship supervisor credentials
- Background information
- Employment history
- Criminal history background check
- Application and fee
You will also be required to pass a state-mandated counseling exam that proves your knowledge of clinical mental health counseling. Once you receive your license, be sure to note the renewal date. It is a good idea to plan your continuing education credits well in advance.
Essential Skills and Characteristics of Effective Marriage Counselors
Throughout your studies and internship, you can work on nurturing the essential skills and characteristics needed to serve as an effective counselor. Some of the most important ones are:
- Communication: Communication is at the heart of what marriage and family therapists do. It is essential to be able to clearly explain ideas and concepts and to elicit clear communication from clients.
- Trustworthiness: Clients must be able to trust their counselors before they can voice their innermost feelings.
- Problem-solving: The ability to brainstorm solutions and creatively solve problems is crucial for every counselor. In effect, counselors are professional problem solvers.
- Interpersonal skills: Marriage counselors must have a keen grasp of interpersonal skills and high emotional intelligence (EQ).
Where do Marriage and Family Counselors Work?
Many marriage and family counselors work in private practices — either their own practice or the private practice of another counselor or psychologist. It is an excellent profession for those with an entrepreneurial mindset. Marriage counselors can also work in the offices of other healthcare practitioners or outpatient/inpatient mental health centers, substance abuse treatment programs, hospitals, schools and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
Is There a Demand for Clinical Mental Health Counseling?
There is a strong demand for qualified clinical mental health counseling professionals for the foreseeable future; the demand for marriage and family therapists is particularly high. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for marriage and family therapists to increase by about 22% from 2019 to 2029, faster than average, accounting for an estimated increase of 14,800 jobs in the field.1
One factor that could be driving this increased demand is the increasing reliance on integrated care in healthcare facilities. Integrated care is a model in which multiple types of specialists collaborate on a client’s care. For example, a marriage and family counselor might work closely with a substance abuse counselor or other mental health specialists to help clients achieve the best possible outcome.
If you are passionate about helping couples strengthen their relationships and work through obstacles, consider furthering your education at Grand Canyon University. Earn a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. This degree program meets the requirements to pursue licensure in Arizona as a Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC) or a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).
Click on Request Info at the top of the screen to begin planning your academic journey at GCU.
1COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Marriage and Family Therapists
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.