What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

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Updated August 4, 2020

Marriage and family therapy is a wonderful tool that many families utilize. About 1.8 million people are in therapy with a marriage and family therapist at any given time period. Marriage and family therapy can provide the necessary treatment in order for couples and families to lead happier and healthier lives together.

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Marriage and family therapy is a form of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that deals with the behaviors of family members and how these behaviors affect individual family members, the relationship between family members, and the family as a whole. These different family dynamics require therapy to be conducted both with individuals as well as with the couple or family. This type of therapy addresses a variety of issues which include marital conflict, sexual dysfunction, children's behavioral problems, parent and child conflict, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and grief. It's considered by the federal government to be one of the core mental health professions with psychology, psychiatry, psychiatric nursing, and social work.

How it Works

Marriage and family therapy is known to be brief and focused on finding solutions. The participants and therapist define specific therapeutic goals and work towards an end date. While some types of therapy can go on for years, a marriage and family case requires, on average, 12 sessions, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

In therapy, the marriage and family therapist begins by meeting with the couple or family as a whole. Then, the therapist meets with individuals separately, although sometimes in family therapy this step is omitted because the therapist deems it unnecessary. The purpose of the initial session is for the therapist to gather information about the issue that prompted therapy, to understand everyone's opinion, and to observe the couple's or family's dynamics. In this session, the therapist usually makes known what their role is, defines the therapy goals, and states any rules to be observed during and after the session. Throughout the various therapy sessions, the participants identify the roles and behaviors that create conflict and explore different means of resolving the issues.

Common Techniques Used

Marriage and family therapists utilize multiple techniques based on the situation and dynamics of the case. Structural therapy is a common technique that is used. This technique evaluates the power dynamics in a family and seeks to redistribute power, if necessary, with the goal of empowering and encouraging respect among family members. Strategic therapy, a technique in which the therapist studies the patterns of conflicts and interactions between family members, is also used. Family members are assigned tasks in order to increase their awareness of their behavioral patterns and strive to improve their interactions. Transgenerational therapy is often used to analyze the conflicts in relationships that occur over multiple generations in a family. In therapy, these conflicts are addressed, along with any problematic belief system that has been passed down from one generation to the next in order to develop solutions for positive change.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 41,500 practicing marriage and family therapists in 2016. Their work addresses a wide range of issues and helps couples and families live happier lives.

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