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Marriage and Family Therapists versus Psychologists: What is the difference?

Women In Therapy Session

For those who enjoy working with others and helping them with their mental health and interpersonal relationships, entering the fields of psychology, therapy, and counseling can be appealing. Each of these areas allows you to work directly with people who benefit from your guidance and assistance. You can assist people in managing illnesses and improving their quality of life.

Within these fields, however, there are several related occupations that often appear to overlap. Two of the most common are ‘marriage and family therapist’ and ‘psychologist.’ For those who want to work with people within a therapeutic atmosphere, it is important to understand the key differences between these two occupations so you can determine which job would suit you and your goals best.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a marriage and family therapist?

Both psychologists and marriage and family therapists are mental health professionals, which means that they will go through schooling that prepares them to work with people who need help with their mental health or interpersonal relationships. There might even be some overlap in the courses they take.

However, psychologists are more likely than marriage and family therapists to work with people who have serious mental illnesses. They also provide more ongoing mental health care for patients who need this level of support.

Marriage and family therapists, on the other hand, work frequently with people through their interpersonal relationships. For example, they might see couples preparing for marriage, those struggling with their child-parent relationships, or families who need to improve how they communicate with each other. They can also work with those who have certain types of mental health struggles, such as depression.

The differences in training and education

Psychologists will have extensive experience studying the field of psychology, completing at least one graduate degree in the field. A psychologist has been trained in the social science of human behavior, and those who have earned advanced degrees can offer clinical care, perform therapy, and can diagnose mental illnesses in their patients. The training taught to psychologists teaches them how to evaluate behaviors and the biological basis for behaviors.

A psychology graduate degree often comes with a significant research component, which will prepare individuals for projects they may complete in the workplace. During their studies, students can also elect to specialize in particular fields of psychology, such as child or clinical psychology.

A marriage and family therapist will also have at least a master’s degree, with some continuing with their education to earn a doctoral degree. This degree will be followed by supervised clinical hours. Those who enter this field focus more on a supportive role in the lives of their patients rather than diagnosing illnesses. They can help people better understand their motivations, problems, and choices while also providing guidance on how to build better communication skills and improve their relationships.

Although the degree is not as research-intensive as a graduate-level degree in psychology, students working towards marriage and family therapist degrees will typically take at least one research course. The coursework for the marriage and family therapist will generally focus on interpersonal studies, such as family studies and human development. They will learn about psychotherapy and counseling for different targeted age groups or situations, such as couple’s counseling or adolescent counseling.

This coursework prepares them for understanding how people interact and will enhance their ability to mediate and guide discussions between people. They will also be able to give patients a better understanding of their own relationships.

The differences in the practice: marriage and family therapists vs. psychologists

Many individuals wonder what psychologists do as the field can be applied in many different areas. Since psychologists spend a lot of their educational training conducting research and receiving training in various cognitive disorders, they can see patients with a variety of different types of mental health problems. They can perform evaluations that determine if a patient has certain mental health disorders and can provide numerous types of treatment to better manage any conditions. If you need medication, some states will allow psychologists who have reached a certain level of training to provide this service. If you live in a state where psychologists cannot provide medication, you can work with a psychiatrist instead. 

Marriage and family therapists, however, have a far greater focus on psychotherapy. These professionals will often use a variety of different types of therapy in their treatment of patients, including cognitive therapy, psychoanalysis, and behavioral therapy. They may also employ less traditional forms of therapy, such as art therapy.

These marriage and family therapists often have experience working with people within the context of a relationship, which makes them particularly helpful for those who want to improve the health of their bonds with loved ones. The belief is that people are also heavily influenced by the relationships in their lives, even if the treatment itself is only for one person. Therefore, the therapist will take into account the relationships that surround the person throughout the treatment.

A treatment plan with a marriage and family therapist will be solution-based and have specific goals in mind. Rather than open-ended therapy, these professionals will work with you to reach an advantageous conclusion.

The differences between psychologists and marriage and family therapists can be very subtle. Although they both work to help people improve their mental health, the areas of focus can differ considerably.

The professionals in both of these positions have the chance to positively impact the lives of those around them, which offers an extraordinary gift that many find rewarding and fulfilling.

At ACU, we offer multiple paths for people interested in serving others. If you would like to know how to become a marriage and family therapist, we invite you to learn more about our Master in Marriage and Family Therapy program.  Or if you are interested in psychology, we encourage you to take a look at our Bachelor of Science in Psychology program.

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