Online Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy Programs (Online MFT Programs)

The family unit, parent/child relationships, and the dynamics present in marriage and other intimate relationships are central concerns in clinical counseling, psychology, and mental health care. Working through familial tensions, marital strains, and other unresolved interpersonal conflicts in a therapeutic setting is often the key to treating an individual’s behavioral issues. While family dynamics and personal relationships may be addressed in a broad range of clinical settings, marriage and family therapists (MFTs) receive specialized training in treating behavioral and emotional disorders related to these areas. Because marriage and family therapy is such a specialized field, with distinct theories, methodologies, and treatment protocols, MFTs have designated training programs and licensing requirements that set them apart from other clinical counselors.

What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

Marriage and family therapy is a specialization within clinical counseling that is broadly recognized as a distinct discipline. What separates training in marriage and family therapy from training in other types of counseling is its deep focus on diagnosing and treating emotional and behavioral disorders in the context of marriage, family, and other close relationships. Like students in other counseling programs, MFTs are trained to treat patients for a wide range of emotional, behavioral, and mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, affective mood disorders, and other psychological problems. In addition to providing mental health counseling to individual adults, MFTs are trained to counsel couples, families, and young children and adolescents. This involves learning how to help people manage and overcome parenting problems, marital conflicts, and other issues specific to couples and families. It may also mean learning to help families who are struggling with the unique challenges of same-sex parenting, childhood autism, infertility, and chronic/severe physical illnesses.

Online Master’s Degrees in MFT

Online MFT programs are designed to teach students the relevant psychological theories, clinical practices, and ethical concerns associated with clinical counseling in the field of marriage and family therapy. These programs are also meant to provide students with the training necessary to apply for licensure as a LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) or LCMFT (Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapy Therapist). Licensure is required in all 50 states in order to work as a professional MFT. Training in MFT programs has two primary components: instructional coursework in the foundational theories, methodologies, and practices of psychotherapy as it relates to families and couples; and supervised clinical experience working with couples and families as part of an internship/practicum. An online MFT program may offer all or most of the required and elective coursework through online instruction. However, the practicum and internship components of an online MFT program must be completed at a local facility approved by the program.

Identifying Online Master’s in MFT Programs

Master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy are the base level requirement for licensure in every state. Consequently, there is a fairly standardized curriculum associated with MFT programs. There are, however, two professional organizations that offer voluntary accreditation to schools that offer these programs: the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP); and the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). Prospective students may find an online marriage and family therapy master’s program accredited by one or both of these organizations, and there are also programs offered by regionally accredited schools that do not have CACREP or COAMFTE accreditation. However, these programs generally adhere to guidelines set forth by COAMFTE and/or CACREP in order to provide students with the training necessary for licensure.

While master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy are widely recognized as the primary mode of training for a career as an LMFT, there is some variation in how these programs are named. Typical designations for master’s in MFT programs include:

  • Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Master of Arts in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling
  • Master of Science in Counseling with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy

How OnlineEducation.com Categorizes Online Master’s in MFT Programs

OnlineEducation.com independently researches online master’s in MFT programs and classifies them based on clear curricular standards. These standards are based in part on the current guidelines laid out by COAMFTE’s parent organization, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Because all of the counseling programs included on the site have an internship/practicum requirement, none of these programs can be considered 100% online. However, some schools do offer online MFT programs with 100% online instruction. These programs do not require students to visit the campus during the program. OnlineEducation.com classifies a program as online if it requires two or fewer visits to campus per year in addition to supervised practicum hours. Programs that require students to attend more than two campus sessions per year as part of instructional coursework are considered hybrid programs and are not included on the site.

In addition, online master’s in MFT programs must meet the following curricular criteria:

  • At least four courses devoted to theory and clinical treatment of families and couples.
  • Coursework that addresses each of the following core subjects: MFT research and evaluation methods; MFT counseling ethics; developmental psychology; and mental health diagnosis and treatment.
  • An internship or practicum that includes at least 700 hours of supervised practice with individuals, couples, and/or families.

What Marriage and Family Therapy Students Learn

Marriage and family therapy master’s programs offer training that can be broken down into two related areas. The first area is general counseling theories and methodologies, including behavioral science research methods, the ethics of counseling, and mental health evaluation and assessment. This general coursework also typically encompasses subjects like developmental psychology, human sexuality, psychopathology, addiction, and psychopharmacology.

The second core area of training is coursework that targets specific aspects of marriage and family therapy. This may include classes in group counseling, couples counseling, and child counseling. It also typically includes at least one course devoted to the systems theory, or family systems theory of counseling, which emphasizes the importance of family relationships on mental health, and is therefore central to marriage and family therapy. In addition, there may be specific coursework in spousal and child abuse, addiction in families, and social/cultural diversity issues for families and couples. This coursework is then reinforced by a practicum and internships that give students supervised experience and contact hours working in the field of marriage and family therapy.

Common Courses in Online Marriage and Family Therapy Programs

Course Title
Course Description
Theories of Family TherapyAn introduction to the systems theory of counseling, and to related methodologies like structural family therapy, narrative therapy, and cognitive-behavioral family therapy.
Psychopathology in the FamilyAn examination of mental illness and behavioral disorders in the context of familial relations.
Ethical and Legal Issues in Family TherapyThe legal and ethical concerns and best practices in marriage and family therapy, including patient confidentiality, patient consent, and reporting laws.
Psychopharmacology and Addiction TreatmentThe principles of psychopharmacology; the effects of psychoactive drugs; and protocols for substance abuse intervention and treatment.
Human Sexuality and Couples TherapyTheories for counseling couples, and for the diagnosis and treatment of sexual disorders.
Diversity in Family SystemsTheories of counseling non-traditional families, including blended families, same-sex families, single-parent families, and transitional families.
Family ViolenceAn examination of the effects and pathologies of spousal abuse, child abuse, and other types of conflict within the family system.

Admissions Requirements for Online MFT Programs

Each school offering an online master’s in MFT program has its own admissions requirements and policies, so prospective students should visit prospective schools’ websites for specific guidelines. The baseline prerequisite for admission is a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited four-year undergraduate program or the equivalent. Some schools may also require or prefer that applicants have completed undergraduate coursework in psychology, sociology, or another behavioral science. In addition, programs may take into consideration an applicant’s GPA, or require the submission of standardized test scores (usually the GRE).

Online Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy Programs Format Options

Distance learning through an interactive, online instructional platform gives students who may not be able to commute regularly to a campus-based MFT program, or who may not live near a school that offers an MFT program, the opportunity to enroll in a program. Online programs may also be ideal for students who have significant work and/or family commitments outside of school. However, there are some key differences in the way these programs are structured. These differences may be an important factor in choosing an online master’s in MFT program. The three most relevant structural components are: synchronous vs. asynchronous instruction; part-time vs. full-time enrollment; and whether or not there are any required campus visits in addition to the program’s practicum and internship requirements.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: Online classes are delivered using two methods of instruction: synchronous and asynchronous. There are advantages in both modes of delivery, and some programs use a combination of the two.

  • Synchronous Instruction: As in a traditional classroom-based setting, synchronous instruction involves holding online lectures and discussions in real-time. This means that students must log in at a scheduled time to participate. One benefit of synchronous instruction is that it can help students who may be prone to procrastinate keep up with lectures and coursework. It may also facilitate spontaneous online discussions with fellow students and instructors. It is not uncommon for programs that utilize synchronous instruction to provide students with access to archived course lectures for review and in cases where they may have to miss a class. But the key feature of synchronous instruction is that students in these programs are expected to be present online at specified times.
  • Asynchronous Instruction: Programs with asynchronous instruction offer students the freedom to choose when they view course lectures and other course materials. Programs that use this mode of online instruction expect students to keep up with coursework by completing assignments and participating in online discussion forums at regular intervals. Programs with asynchronous instruction may require more self-motivation and self-discipline compared to programs that use synchronous instruction. However, they offer a greater degree of flexibility by giving students on-demand access to course materials 24-7. Students should note that all online MFT programs, regardless of the type of instruction used, require self-motivation and self-discipline in order to graduate.

Part-time vs. Full-time Enrollment: Students in online master’s in MFT programs may have the option of choosing between full-time and part-time enrollment. Some schools offer both options, while others may only offer full-time enrollment or part-time enrollment. Part-time enrollment gives students who may have significant commitments outside of school flexibility in terms of the number of courses they enroll in per term or semester. While this will lengthen the time to completion, it can make the coursework more manageable in situations where that is necessary. Students who opt for part-time enrollment in a two-year master’s in MFT programs may take three or four years to graduate. Students who decide to pursue their degree part-time should note that some programs cap the number of years a student is allowed to take before graduating and this cap is typically between five and seven years. For students who are primarily concerned with graduating in a shorter period of time, programs that offer full-time enrollment can typically be completed in 18 to 24 months of year-round instruction.

Practicums, Internships, and Campus Visits: Supervised clinical practicums and internship are an integral part of any master’s in counseling program, including online master’s in MFT programs. Schools may have different policies regarding how and where supervised clinical hours are completed. But in most cases, online students are able to complete these requirements at a local site that is convenient for them. If no local site can be found, students may have to travel 1-2 hours to an approved site, as supervised clinical hours are required for graduation and licensure.

In addition to internships and practicums, some online programs require students to make a limited number of campus visits during the program. These sessions, which are often called immersions or on-campus intensives, are an instructional technique designed to provide students in an online program with in-person instruction and face-to-face interactions with classmates and instructors. On-campus immersions are often two to three days long, but can last up to a week. They typically include demonstrations and networking events. They may also involve testing or provide students with an orientation to the program or an orientation to the clinical component of a program. Students should note that these sessions are usually mandatory and the costs associated with these campus visits may not be included in tuition costs and program fees.

On-campus sessions can be a valuable learning experience, especially for online students who desire face-to-face interactions. However, students who cannot travel to campus or who cannot commit to traveling campus may want to choose a program that does not require campus visits. As noted above, on OnlineEducation.com, MFT programs that require two or fewer visits to campus per year are classified as online MFT programs.