Become a Couples & Divorce Counselor – Education & Licensing
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The institution of marriage is one of society’s most basic expectations. As much as people want to be coupled and start families, marriage or long-term partnerships are not easy relationships to maintain. The CDC says that 2.9 couples per 1,000 will seek divorce. And even if people stay married without divorcing, they often need help improving their communication.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020), the job outlook for marriage and family therapists, which has a lot of overlap with the field of couples and divorce counseling, is growing more rapidly than most U.S. occupations. In fact, the BLS predicted there would be a 22 percent jump in positions nationally between 2019 and 2029.
A couples and divorce counselor provides support services to individual clients as well as to couples and families who are experiencing stress related to their family or relationships. A divorce counselor will specifically shepherd couples through the divorce process, and encourage them to work through and consider issues, which may affect their ability to successfully co-parent (if children are involved) or go on to have other healthy relationships.
There are many environments in which a couples and divorce counselor can work, including schools, outpatient care facilities, substance abuse treatment centers, domestic violence shelters, and in their own private practices or group practices. They can work with people who are trying to save their marriages or those who have already decided to divorce and are seeking help with the decision-making involved in that process.
Counselors in this field may treat couples with a variety of issues, such as those related to religion or sexuality. Whatever the issue, a couples counselor should be dedicated to helping people overcome obstacles preventing them from developing healthy relationships. To enter this field, the first step is to earn a master’s degree in a counseling-related field. There are also many specialties available, including a focus on Christian counseling, counseling those who are LGBTQ, and counseling multicultural relationships, among others.
If you are interested in a career helping clients work through the painful process of divorce or helping them with other issues that may ultimately strengthen their relationship, read on for the steps on how to become a couples and divorce counselor.
How to Become a Couples & Divorce Counselor
When a relationship ends, it can take a surprising emotional and psychological toll on both the couple and any children that may be part of the union. Regardless of how the relationship ends, working through the process of divorcing and restarting a new life on different terms can be one of the most challenging events of a person’s life. If the relationship ends due to some trauma such as infidelity or another breach of trust issue, it can be devastating indeed. A qualified and skillful couples and divorce counselor will have many of the same qualifications of a licensed marriage and family therapist, and in fact, the educational requirements are very much the same.
Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)
Similar to other mental health and therapy careers, a successful career as a couples and divorce counselor starts with an interest in psychology, counseling, or social work. While in high school, students who already know that they wish to work in the field of therapy may plan to take classes that support their future baccalaureate education by taking human development classes, biology and anatomy classes, psychology or sociology, and classes related to humanities and social sciences.
Students in high school may also prepare themselves by finding related volunteer work. This could involve starting support groups. Volunteer experience could involve working as a local social services agency such as a domestic abuse shelter or soup kitchen. There can be a great deal of competition to get into a four-year college, so any advocacy or experience that sets one student apart from another could make a difference on the student getting into the college of their choice. Completing high school with a high grade point average would also be advised, as for many social science degrees, a minimum GPA of at least 3.00 is often required.
Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
While the licensing phase of becoming a couples and divorce counselor takes place after the master’s degree, many educational requirements start at the baccalaureate level. Usually, individuals seeking to become a couples and divorce counselor or marriage and family therapist will start by earning a bachelor’s degree in a counseling-related field. This typically means psychology, sociology, social work, counseling, nursing, pastoral counseling, or education, although students from any major can apply to become a marriage and family or couples and divorce therapist. When planning volunteer, research, or coursework, it is advised to focus on topics related to marriage and/or family situations.
Being accepted in a graduate program typically requires completing a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school. The organization COAMFTE, or the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy, accredits marriage and family therapy educational programs. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), qualified candidates for licensure must have graduated from an accredited program and obtained at least two years of post-degree supervised clinical experience working in direct service to married couples.
While nearing the end of the bachelor’s degree, many students begin thinking about what school they want to attend for graduate school. Within this consideration is whether or not the graduate school requires a GRE entrance exam. If it does, this can add weeks to months to a student’s timeline, to study for and take the test.
Step 3: Obtain a Master’s Degree (Two Years)
Once the decision is made as to which graduate school to attend, next is deciding on the program. For individuals interested in working with couples as a divorce counselor a graduate program in counseling is likely the best option. Many counseling master’s programs are in general clinical mental health counseling, with specializations available for marriage and family therapy.
Alternatively, some programs can be specifically for a degree as a counselor in marriage and family therapy with options for other specializations such as working with substance abuse issues, sexuality issues related to gender identity or general sexual development, or other specific populations of people.
For instance, Northcentral University‘s master of arts in marriage and family therapy has a military family therapy specialization. This program prepares counselors to work with individuals, couples, and families that are affiliated with the military. To obtain this specialization, students must have at least 100 hours of clinical experience in an approved military setting.
Most graduate programs require at least two years of full-time study. Some can be extended to three years, and some have part-time study options. The last half of the first year is typically taken up with a practicum, which is a period of time for the student to engage in observation and documentation. The last year of the program is typically an in-depth research project, often called a capstone project, and active internships in which the students are working in a job-simulated environment under supervision.
Step 4: Pass Required Examinations (Timeline Varies)
Licensure to practice couples and divorce counseling usually falls under the same guidelines as that of a licensed marriage and family therapist. Each state has different requirements for this licensure stage, but for the most part, all involve graduation from an accredited college or program and passing a licensure exam approved by the individual state’s board of education. The student is advised to be sure to check with the licensing board of the state where they wish to practice to be sure of the requirements.
To practice as a licensed marital and family therapist (LMFT) students will be required to pass the MFT National Examination, developed and managed by the association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards, or AMFTRB. A practice exam is available.
The process for applying and completing the exam takes a month at a minimum. According to the AMFTRB, students start the process by applying to their state or jurisdiction board to determine or confirm eligibility for the test. The state will send a letter to confirm eligibility. There is often an online application and application or testing fee.
To register for the exam, students must first contact their jurisdiction and state board where they intend to become licensed. They should contact the state where they wish to work, rather than the state where they may be living. Students will schedule with the testing company based on availability. After the exam is taken, it takes about 20 days to receive the scores.
According to the AMFTRB, the MFT National Examination is given during a one-week window every month. They recommend allowing extra time in case of a non-passing score the first time.
Step 5: Apply for a Certification or License (Timeline Varies)
Steps for state licensure vary by state but are generally similar in scope. This typically means an application that documents graduation from a regionally accredited school with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy (or in an allied field with graduate-level course work in marriage and family therapy that meets that state’s board requirements).
Prior to obtaining licensure, the student should be expected to have completed a set amount of supervised work postgraduate experience. In Alabama, for instance, according to the AMFTRB, this amount is 200 hours of supervised work, along with 1,000 post-degree direct client hours. Two-hundred-and-fifty of these direct contact hours must be with couples or families physically present in the therapy room. Work must be supervised by a licensed MFT.
In California, licensees must accrue 3,000 hours of supervised work experience and 104 weeks of supervision with a minimum of 500 hours with couples, families, and children. Experience can also be a combination of group psychotherapy; telehealth or telephone counseling; workshops, seminars, training sessions, and conferences, provided the maximum and minimum hours are met for each criterion. Approved supervisors in California must be LMFT’s licensed for a minimum of two years and take a six-hour supervision course every renewal period.
Step 6: Licensing Maintenance or Renewal (Timeline Varies)
According to the Licensed Professional Board of Examiners, the renewal of an LMFT license is mandatory every other year. Ten percent of licensees are audited and must provide documentation of a minimum of 40 Continuing Education Hours. CEH requirements vary by state but typically include work or training in approved content areas. Of the 40 CEHs required, 20 must be in the area of marriage and family therapy. If a license expires, the individual must re-apply for licensure under the current licensure requirements for their state.
What Do Couples & Divorce Counselors Do?
First and foremost, couples and divorce counselors must create an environment in which their clients feel welcome and supported and feel comfortable disclosing often deeply personal thoughts and feelings. It is essential that couples and divorce counselors possess strong interpersonal communication and listening skills. Empathy and compassion are of utmost importance. A counselor with a Christian focus can guide couples through their issues within the framework of their religious choices. A counselor who specializes in sexuality or gender identity could help someone through the difficult process of gender affirmation. Others may help a multicultural couple work through differences in their cultural expectations.
People often think about going to marriage counseling if something traumatic has happened and their marriage is in trouble. Often, a marriage or family therapist can work through issues that are straining a marriage, such as having a child with special needs or an issue such as infidelity. Couples counselors work primarily with people in committed relationships as opposed to families or children, although they can help couples deal with childhood issues such as children’s conduct disorders, adolescent drug abuse, autism, or chronic illness in adults and children, all of which could lead to relationship distress and conflict.
A divorce counselor works with patients to help them through the process of divorce. According to the AAMFT, couples counseling is typically solution-focused and short term. They say that sessions wrap up in 12 sessions, on average, while nearly 67 percent of the cases are completed within 20 sessions. About half of the treatment provided by couples and family counselors is one-on-one with the other half divided between marital/couple and family therapy, or a combination of treatments.
A divorce counselor could shepherd the couple through the pre- and post-process of divorce, including working on a parenting plan, splitting assets, accepting future relationships, or other issues. Even if the couple decides to divorce, working with a divorce counselor to help them understand their emotional response to their marriage can help them get along and work out problems more effectively at any point in their lives. When working with a professional, the chances of a positive outcome, however that is defined by the parties involved, is much higher.
How Much Do Couples & Divorce Counselors Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2019), marriage and family therapists had the following salary average and percentiles:
- Number employed in the U.S.: 59,050 MFTs
- Average annual salary (mean): $54,590
- 10th percentile: $32,070
- 25th percentile: $37,740
- 50th percentile (median): $49,610
- 75th percentile: $64,630
- 90th percentile: $87,700
Couples & Divorce Counselor Professional Associations & Resources
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)
- International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors
- International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC)
- National Council on Family Relations
- International Family Therapy Association
- American Family Therapy Academy
- European Family Therapy Association
- Commission on Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)
- American Counseling Association
- American Mental Health Counselors Association
- Family Solutions Institute