Anne C. Totero
Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) is a single practice that is comprised of concepts from a variety of social science fields. MFT adopts its clinical and empirical belief systems from psychology, social work, sociology, and most importantly: cybernetics. Cybernetics originated with looking at the cyclical pattern involved with machinery. The main focus was to understand and investigate how systems work as a whole to carry out tasks. Cybernetics became an attractive concept for conceptualizing different aspects, or systems, of patients’ lives. Using this modality, MFT veers away from focusing solely on the individual and instead includes other interpersonal connections in a person’s life, such as family, peers, work environment, and sometimes the broader community. The General Systems Theory (Bertalanffy, 1968) is another perspective that has influenced MFT and views behavior as a result of interactional patterns. These interactions are impacted by people’s family origins, which can affect their decision-making and personality. Mental health in MFT is assessed by how these interactions with other people in a patient’s life systems affect personality development.
MFT versus Other Therapeutic Modalities
When comparing master’s level MFTs to other mental health fields, such as clinical and counseling psychology or social work, there are a few major differences. Regarding therapeutic intervention, psychologists and social workers frequently assess and approach a case from a cognitive-behavioral perspective. Although MFTs incorporate cognitive-behavioral therapy as an intervention for certain clients, they approach clients from a systems perspective. It is this focus on systems that most clearly differentiates MFT from other therapy modalities, which typically put much greater focus on the individual patient than on the systems of interactions that may be contributing to his or her distress or dysfunction.
MFT is a treatment approach where the primary clientele is composed of individuals, married and unmarried couples, and families. This does not mean MFTs are restricted to working with this clientele, but they are specialized in working with these populations. The focuses of MFTs are interpersonal relationships. MFTs can work in various areas, such as pre-marital counseling, couples, family, divorce, grief, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and group therapy. When discussing how a MFT might approach therapeutic intervention with certain at-risk populations, there are numerous possibilities. MFT contains a good deal of established and newly created therapy modalities, such as experiential, structural, brief strategic, and Bowenian approaches, to name a few. Each therapist adopts a certain therapy modality within a systems approach that fits his or her preference.
Where Do MFTs Work?
Similar to clinical or counseling psychologists, MFTs can work nearly anywhere, such as in hospitals, private practices, and schools. The high divorce rate, increased numbers of single-parent families, frequent major crises, and rampant substance abuse are all areas in which MFTs can help alleviate distress and disorder. The duties that an MFT tackles in a clinical setting are not different from those of most other mental healthcare workers, such as psychologists. MFTs are mental health practitioners who are able to diagnose and treat clients using the DSM-IV-TR — the current classification system of mental disorders.
What Does the Average Program Look Like and How Long is it?
A Master of Science degree in Marriage and Family Therapy is, on average, two years of full-time coursework and internship. Each program is set up differently, but the information should be available on the program’s website. Interested students may also contact the program director directly. With licensure, 500 hours are required for pre-degree completion and 3,000 hours are required for post-degree completion. Training entails learning assessment skills, diagnostic skills, treatment planning, case progress, and teamwork; receiving supervision is another critical aspect of training. MFT programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education.
An accredited MFT program is required to have a research component. The strength of the research infrastructure, however, varies by program; some programs in MFT may require more research than others. A student may have an opportunity to partake in an independent project or be involved with a large research project conducted by professors in the department. Research is slowly but surely becoming a mainstream concentration for MFT practitioners. Some topics include sibling interactions, attachment styles and how they affect interpersonal relationships later in life, and family therapy with substance abusers. The empirical focus of these efforts involves interactional patterns. Research also includes MFT practice in the context of establishing it as an evidence-based approach to treatment of such problems as grief, relationship dissatisfaction, and substance abuse. There are many opportunities in a master’s and doctoral level program to pursue research in this field.
Students interested in MFT can check out www.aamft.org to look through their resources. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) is a professional organization for systems therapists. Resources on the website include information about the national conference, schools in a state of your choice, and accessibility of supervisors for MFT interns or residents.
Bertalanffy, L. V. (1968). General systems theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: George Braziller.
Gehart, D. (2010). Mastering competencies in family therapy: A practical approach to theories and clinical case documentation. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Green, J. B. (2003). Introduction to family theory and therapy: Exploring an evolving field. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Smith, S. R., Hammon, R. R., Ingoldsby, B. B., & Miller, J. E. (2009). Exploring family theories (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Anne C. Totero is currently in her second year at Edgewood College’s M.S. program in Marriage and Family Therapy in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to receiving her M.S. degree, she will be obtaining her Substance Abuse Certificate to be trained as a Substance Abuse Counselor. She will be furthering her therapeutic career as a substance abuse counselor while working with individuals, families, and couples as they transition to outpatient providers after a higher level of care (i.e. inpatient, residential substance abuse programs). If you have any questions, please feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author would like to thank Dr. Peter Fabian, the Program and Clinical Director at Edgewood College’s Marriage and Family Therapy program. Dr. Fabian provided valuable contributions and clarifications to the topics discussed within this article.