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Be a Marriage Counselor: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a marriage counselor. Research the education and career requirements, training, licensure information and experience you will need to start a career in marriage counseling.

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Do I Want to Be a Marriage Counselor?

Marriage counselors, or marriage and family therapists, are licensed mental health practitioners who work with couples to help them improve their relationships. This counseling is a form of psychotherapy that involves helping couples analyze and resolve their problems. These professionals can play a vital role in helping couples determine whether or not their conflicts are reconcilable or if it is time for them to move on. Working with adults whose personal lives are in distress might be challenging or unsettling for some. Counselors often work weekends and evenings to meet their clients' scheduling needs.

Job Requirements

A master's degree is required to become a marriage counselor. Licensing is also required. The following table outlines the general requirements to become a marriage counselor as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Common Requirements
Degree Level At least a master's degree
Degree Field Counseling, marriage and family therapy
Licensing A state-issued license, which requires completion of education and experience requirements, as well as an exam
Experience Two years of clinical experience
Key Skills Compassion, people skills, listening abilities, speaking skills

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Earning a bachelor's degree is the first step towards becoming a marriage counselor. Most schools do not offer bachelor's degree programs specifically in marriage counseling; however, students may earn a bachelor's degree in social work, psychology or another related area. In addition to teaching students about the foundations of psychology and social work, these degree programs may provide education in numerous areas directly related to marriage counseling, such as social psychology, cognitive psychology, sexuality, sociology and interpersonal relationships. Most bachelor's degree programs require completion of relevant internships or clinical practice prior to graduation.

Success Tip:

  • Stand out as a student. When applying to graduate programs it is essential that an aspiring marriage counselor be as competitive as possible. Maintaining a high grade point average, participating in academic clubs and volunteering for local organizations can help students gain the competitive edge they need to secure a spot in a competitive graduate program for marriage and family therapy.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree in Marriage Counseling

A master's degree is the minimum education needed to become a marriage counselor. Master's degree programs fully educate students in social science-related areas of marriage counseling, often offering courses in areas such as adolescent and family counseling, cultural diversity, couples therapy, family systems sociology and marriage counseling ethics. Marriage counseling master's degree programs also place great emphasis on applied clinical experience and research, with students often having to complete numerous credit hours of clinical research and internships to earn their degree.

Step 3: Gain Clinical Experience as a Marriage Counselor

Marriage counseling licensure requirements vary from state to state. The BLS indicates that states mandate the completion of a certain number of hours of supervised marriage counseling work experience before granting licenses. These requirements sometimes exist independently of any clinical practicum credits accrued during completion of master's degree programs and are measured in weeks or hours, depending on the state. The BLS reports that the standard supervised clinical requirement for marriage and family therapists is two years.

Step 4: Become a Licensed Marriage Counselor

A written exam is always required to obtain licensure, and classes and exams on ethical standards may also be required, depending on the state. Some states have their own licensing exams, while others utilize a standard exam provided by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. After completing the required educational prerequisites, clinical work experience and exam(s), aspiring marriage counselors can apply for a state license. This is the final required step before beginning a career as a marriage counselor.

Success Tips:

  • Earn additional credentials. Earning additional credentials through optional certification programs can help a marriage counselor stand out in the field. For example, the National Board of Certified Counselors offers an optional certification known as the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential.
  • Join a professional organization. Professional organizations, such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, can greatly benefit a marriage counselor in the industry. These organizations offer continuing education options and networking opportunities.

Step 5: Complete Continuing Education

Almost all states require the completion of continuing education credits to maintain or renew a marriage counselor license. While exact rules and regulations differ from state to state, most licenses expire on an annual or biannual basis and require completion of approximately 30 continuing education units for renewal. Many states have lists of approved topics or course providers that they are willing to accept towards fulfillment of these requirements.

Another option for continuing education is to earn a doctorate in marriage and family therapy. A doctoral degree can expand career opportunities into academia and research.

Success Tip:

  • Attend lectures and workshops. Workshops or lectures can help marriage counselors stay on top of relevant research and other industry trends. Attending these lectures and workshops may also count toward the required continuing education units needed for license renewal.
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