Gary Bloom

March 22, 2021

History of Marriage and Family Therapists

In my early post-college years (the 70s), the most common precursor for the break-up of the marriage of one of my friends or acquaintances was that one or both members of the couple entered individual psychotherapy. “Personal growth” rather than stable relationships was all the rage in that era, especially for those on the path to practice marriage and family therapy. Left in the wake of the personal-growth fad was the refuse dump of starter marriages, with the accompanying new trend of shared child custody. What about the children? They were compensated with the same number of bedrooms as they had (biological) parents and could practice playing one parent against another, a skill that would become useful later in life when they got competing job offers from the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. 

When psychoanalysis dominated the definition of psychotherapy, psychotherapists believed that the path to mend rifts between members of a couple was to have them, separate from their partners, sit or lay on a couch, and talk about their memories of childhood. Starting in the 40s, a few psychoanalysts recognized that, while psychoanalysis for a member of a couple might be the royal road to a comfortable income for themselves, it wasn’t usually the answer to heal marital problems.

Because these disenchanted analysts had no formal training in marriage and family counseling—there wasn’t any to be had—they had to make it up as they went along. First order of business in those days was to get all affected parties in the same room for sessions. Second order of business - well, there wasn’t any second order, because as I said, they had to make it up as they went along. Leaving the psychoanalytic model behind, the pioneers had only their confidence, charisma, hunches, and the knowledge that the old way didn’t translate to success in marriage and family counseling. 

Fortunately, for both therapists and their clientele, ideas from systems theory, cybernetics, and hypnosis surfaced as a theoretical foundation for how families work not-so-well, and how to help them work better. 

In 1964, California became the first state to issue a license to practice as a Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor. With California law as a model, the remaining 49 states followed. Around the same time, a doctorate degree became the necessary credential to get licensed as a psychologist. As a result, the marriage counseling license became the goto credential for masters-level clinicians. 

Ridiculous as it seems in retrospect, there weren’t any graduate programs to support marriage and family counseling as a profession. Clinicians qualified academically for the marriage and family therapy license (MFT) with a master’s in either counseling or psychology. Far from the implied expertise or interest in couple and family counseling, most early MFT licensees focused on individual counseling—commonly, employing psychodynamic (Freudian), Rogerian, or other individual-oriented approaches. The MFT license preceded a practical path to training as an MFT, and a generation of licensed MFTs was that, in name only. 

Beginning in the late 70s, first in California, graduate programs in marriage and family therapy began to spring up. Infused with a pioneering generation that studied how to understand and work with family systems, marriage and family therapy became an approach and profession in its own right.

In sum, three generations of MFTs had distinct experiences: The first were mostly psychoanalysts who pioneered a new approach to help with emotional concerns that originated in one’s family. The second were largely motivated by a shorter-term educational investment in earning a license to practice: they were apt to identify themselves as psychotherapists, rather than as marriage and family counselors. And, finally, came clinicians who were both motivated to be, and trained to be, MFTs.