What is a Marriage & Family Therapist?

Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) are psychotherapists and healing arts practitioners licensed by the State of California. MFTs help with a wide variety of issues ranging from anxiety and depression to child behavior and elder concerns. 

The terms "Marriage, Family and Child Counselors" (MFCCs) and "Marriage and Family Therapists" are interchangeable. All states that regulate the profession use the title, "Marriage and Family Therapist." MFTs in California were previously known as MFCCs.

MFTs practice early crisis intervention and brief, focused psychotherapy to resolve problems or reduce symptoms quickly. They also have the expertise and skills to work with persons where more intensive, long-term treatment is necessary.


What happens in marriage or couples counseling?

MFTs help couples uncover and effectively communicate about conflicts and issues that are impacting their relationship, teach the tools and skills needed to manage and salvage their relationship, like learning to work together rather than against each other.  Often­times, people unconsciously try to resolve conflicts or “do” marriage the way they learned in their families.  In therapy you can learn more efficient and effective ways of conflict resolution and communication to heal and move past the hurt.


What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

A family's patterns of behavior influences the individual and therefore may need to be a part of the treatment plan. In marriage and family therapy, the unit of treatment isn't just the person - even if only a single person is interviewed - it is the set of relationships in which the person is imbedded. 


Marriage and family therapists treat a wide range of serious clinical problems including: depression, marital problems, anxiety, individual psychological problems, and child-parent problems. 


Research indicates that marriage and family therapy is as effective, and in some cases more effective than standard and/or individual treatments for many mental health problems such as: depression, anxiety, and relationship distress and conflict. 


Marriage and family therapists regularly practice short-term therapy; 12 sessions on average. Nearly 65.6% of the cases are completed within 20 sessions, 87.9% within 50 sessions. Marital/couples therapy (11.5 sessions) and family therapy (9 sessions) both require less time than the average individuated treatment (13 sessions). About half of the treatment provided by marriage and family therapists is one-on-one with the other half divided between marital/couple and family therapy, or a combination of treatments.


Will therapy work for me?

Research shows that therapy works for most clients.  In fact, most clients report relief from depression, anxiety, relationship problems and paralyzing stress.  Many also state that they utilized therapy in order to learn more about themselves and for their personal growth and exploration.  Studies also show that clients are highly satisfied with services of Marriage and Family Therapists. Clients report marked improvement in work productivity, co-worker relationships, family relationships, partner relationships, emotional health, overall health, social life, and community involvement.

What should I ask myself?

• What do I hope to gain from therapy? Will this therapist help me do that? 

• Am I comfortable with this therapist? Would I want to come back?

• Remember: The most important factor in securing effective therapy is a good relationship between you and your therapist.

• Do I feel assured that the therapist is qualified to help me with the issues or concerns that have motivated me to seek therapy at this time?

• Am I willing to do the work necessary to participate in therapy?

How will I know I’m with the right therapist?

Notice how you feel in the presence of the therapist. You want to be with a therapist with whom you feel comfortable and addresses your questions and concerns in a direct, respectful way.  It’s important you feel heard and understood.  Regardless of a therapist's training or philosophy, the therapist/client relationship is largely what determines whether you think the therapy will be effective or not.

What if I want to ask questions?

You should ask your therapist questions throughout your treatment about the process of therapy. You have a right to know what is happening and why.


I tried therapy before and it didn’t work, why should I try it again?Sometimes the chemistry between the therapist and client or the therapeutic modality just isn’t a good fit. Just as you sometimes have to switch medication, you may need to switch therapists or treatment modalities to achieve success.

Therapy works best when you are open to it and are actually willing to participate in your own healing.


In therapy? Here's how to assess effectiveness

By Jonathan Alpert

Special to The Times

March 26, 2001


So, you've been in therapy for several months and aren't sure if you're improving.


You seem to feel better, getting things off your mind each week, but how do you know if you're actually gaining from seeing your therapist? There's a difference between feeling better and getting better. The former usually brings immediate relief. The latter results in lasting life change that will lead to healthy behaviors and new ways of coping with stress and problems. This comes only when you acquire tools and skills you can apply beyond the immediate crisis or concern that brought you to the therapist in the first place.


In psychotherapy, regardless of the school of thought, a collaborative effort should exist in which the client and therapist both work hard to achieve the desired outcome.


One of the first things that you should do is make a list of realistic goals and what you're hoping to gain from therapy. Share it with your therapist so that a specific treatment plan can be established. Reviewing the goals every few sessions will give you and the therapist opportunity to monitor progress.


Ideally, as insight, support, and direction are provided, you should move closer to reaching the goals with each session.


Homework should be given, as this bridges what's learned in the session with what happens in real life. It gives the patient an opportunity to develop thoughts or concepts arrived at during sessions, to try out newly acquired skills and to implement exercises.


For example, if social anxiety is the problem, then homework may be practicing relaxation techniques and an exercise in which the patient approaches others casually, asking for the time or directions. The patient should keep a written record of his or her reactions to the exercise and bring it back to a session and review it with the therapist.


As treatment continues, information learned in sessions will be more accessible when a patient is away from therapy, and come more naturally. The patient will develop a set of skills that can be applied with confidence to situations that once proved to be problematic.


Over time, the patient will find the answers and rely less on the therapist's guidance, and the need for sessions will be less frequent, allowing the patient to develop a sense of independence.


Be a good consumer of this personalized service and assess your progress. One way this is accomplished is to review the notes and goals that were established at the first session. This will reveal what progress has been made — or not. It's quite possible that goals aren't being reached but you're simply feeling better having someone to talk to. This isn't the healthiest set-up, as it could lead to becoming dependent on your therapist. An honest and skilled therapist should recognize this — and either set a new course of treatment or suggest a different therapist


What are some signs that you should shop for a new therapist? Beyond a lack of progress toward your goals, there are some other things you should check.


Therapy is your time and your opportunity to address issues. Therefore, you should be the one to choose what's most important to work on.


You should feel respected in session and not as though your therapist's values are being placed on you or you're being judged — otherwise, you'll surely feel uncomfortable and limit or withhold valuable information.


A feeling of safety should also be abundantly available, as therapy addresses sensitive and fragile issues.


Don't just accept the therapist's methods. In fact, the talk therapy model where patient talks and therapist listens, offering an occasional, "I see" or "tell me how that makes you feel," it isn't necessarily the gold standard or helpful.


Rather than being a passive participant, take an active role and question the course of treatment and outcome. After all, with a physical disorder, if the doctor prescribed medication or physical therapy and you saw no improvement, you'd probably speak up.


If, say, after a month of treatment for anxiety you still worry excessively, feel restless or edgy and have difficulty concentrating, then bring it to the therapist's attention. Share how you feel and don't assume it's known. A disorder such as anxiety is treatable and results are measurable. Frequency, duration and intensity of symptoms can be monitored - and there should be noticeable, if not marked improvements after several weeks as you lear new skills and develop insight.


If you try therapy and don't feel comfortable, chances are it's just not a good fit — and not necessarily a reflection on you. It's a very personal service, and comfort has to exist. If it doesn't, keep trying until you find a therapist you click with: You'll likely know within the first few minutes. Don't give up.


Although it may be a sensitive matter, word of mouth is probably the best way to find a good therapist. If someone you know has gained from seeing one, then he or she will probably be proud to share those improvements with you and tell you about the person who helped.


In On the Mind Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist in New York, answers questions about healthy mental living. Send questions and comments to health@latimes.com.