Jane R. Rosen-Grandon Professional Issues Paper Fall 1994
Return to Table of Contents

Choosing the Best Road to a Career in Marriage and Family Counseling/Therapy

The majority of students who wish to enter one of the clinical helping professions complete their Bachelor's degree knowing that graduate education will be required. Having earned their Bachelor's degree in psychology, social work, counseling or a related field, the student is then faced with the challenge of deciding which type of graduate program and theoretical orientation to pursue. If the student elects to obtain a terminal master's degree that will allow him/her to practice independently, there are three primary choices: social work, professional counseling, and marriage and family therapy.

The following paper presents a brief history of these three professions. It then focusses on the similarities and differences between the latter two, which both lead to specializations in marriage and family counseling/therapy. Finally, the question of which approach to marriage and family counseling/therapy education is the better choice, is addressed.

A Brief History of the Professions

Social Work. The Master's of Social Work degree is one of long-standing tradition. The history of the field of Social Work dates back to the founding of the first city-wide charity organization in Buffalo, New York in 1988 (Rich, 1956). Zilpha D. Smith is recognized as one of the early pioneers in the conversion of social work from a volunteer pursuit to a profession in 1890 (Broderick & Schrader, 1981). Beginning with the work of Mary Richmond, who is credited with being perhaps the greatest champion of looking at the whole family and its needs, as early as 1908 (Rich, 1956), the history of social work is described as being inextricably interwoven with the history of marriage and family therapy (Broderick & Schrader, 1981).

Marriage and Family Therapy. Marriage Counselors, on the other hand, were initially physicians, lawyers, educators and social workers, who viewed marriage counseling as part of their jobs (Broderick & Schrader, 1981). Marriage Counseling had its original roots in Sexology, which began with the work of Havelock Ellis of Great Britain and Magnus Hirschfeld of Germany in the early 1900's, and the Family Life Education Movement, which began as early as 1883 (Broderick & Schrader, 1981). In 1934, discussions were initiated between Lester Dearborn (a social hygienist and sex counselor with the Boston Y.M.C.A.), Dr. Emily Mudd (who founded the Marriage Council of Philadelphia in 1932), Ernest Groves (who instituted the first "functional" Marriage and Family Relations course for college credit at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1936) and others that eventually led to the establishment of the American Association of Marriage Counselors (AAMC) in 1945 (Broderick & Schrader, 1981).

In 1970, the AAMC changed its name in response to members' growing interest in treating families, thus becoming the American Association for Marriage and Family Counseling (AAMFC). Later still in 1978, a third name change to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) reflected the interests of psychologists and psychiatrists who saw themselves as therapists, rather than counselors (Broderick & Schrader, 1981).

As early as 1949, the first set of professional standards for marriage counselors was published. Today, the accrediting body for graduate programs in Marriage and Family Therapy is known as the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), which is recognized by the United States Department of Education (USDE) (Stevens-Smith, Hinkle & Stahmann, 1993).

Professional Counseling. Professional Counseling has its roots in the fields of Vocational Guidance and Rehabilitation, Counselor Education, College Personnel, Humanistic Education and School Guidance Counseling. Professional Counseling evolving during the post World War II era, and was based on a psychoeducational approach to personal change (Brooks & Gerstein, 1990). Although it has been termed a "relative newcomer" to mental health care settings, it is also considered to be among the most well-rounded of the helping professions (Brooks & Gerstein, 1990). From the beginning, professional counseling has insisted on viewing clients as basically healthy people whose problems are essentially developmental in nature (Brooks & Gerstein, 1990).

Since its inception in 1952, the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA) has also gone through two name changes which reflect its evolution. Originally changed to the American Association for Counseling and Development (AACD), the more recent name change to the American Counseling Association (ACA) reflects its growing concern with counseling at all stages in the lifespan. Remley (1991) also notes that the name changes have served to reduce identification with the previous lower occupational status of guidance to counseling.

In 1973, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), a division of the ACA, first adopted standards for the preparation of counselors and other personnel services specialists (Brooks & Gerstein, 1990). These paved the way for the establishment of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) which is recognized by the Council on Postsecondary Education (COPA) (Sweeney, 1992; Stevens-Smith & others, 1993). Through the efforts of ACES and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), a division of the ACA which was established in 1989, CACREP began to accredit Marriage and Family Counseling/Therapy Programs as recently as 1991 (Stevens-Smith, Hinkle & Stahmann, 1993).

Similarities and Differences between Professional Counselors and Marriage & Family Therapists.

Stevens-Smith, Hinkle, and Stahmann (1993) have done an excellent job of comparing and contrasting the training standards of the COAMFTE and CACREP. They note that both types of accredited programs lead to state certification/licensure. To qualify for accreditation under CACREP or COAMFTE, master's degree programs must involve extensive academic, as well as clinical training experiences.

Differences between COAMFTE and CACREP-accredited programs tend to be theoretical in nature. Professional counseling programs rely heavily on cognitive theories. Stevens-Smith and others (1993) point out that CACREP requires additional training in individual counseling and psychotherapy, group dynamics, and career systems. On the other hand, Marriage and Family Therapy programs rely heavily on systems theories and a systems paradigm in most human-related issues (Stevens-Smith & others, 1993). On the whole, CACREP requires their master's students to complete more coursework hours; COAMFTE requires that students complete more direct contact hours through practicum and internship experiences. Within the university system, Professional Counseling programs tends to reside within the School of Education; Marriage and Family Therapy programs are usually affiliated with Schools of Home Economics and Family Studies on campus.

Both Professional Counselors and Marriage/Family Therapists share the common need for recognition as qualified mental health providers in the private and publc sector for purposes of third party reimbursement, and they share the common need for recognition as qualified providers of mental health services among the allied mental health professions (Stevens-Smith & others, 1993.) Both fields offer strong national organizations with which to affiliate (i.e. the ACA and the AAMFT), professional research journals, state organizations for interprofessional support (e.g. the North Carolina Counseling Association and the North Carolina Association for Marriage and Family Therapy), and a plethora of opportunities for continuing education. How then should the prospective counselor choose between these two allied fields?

Which Approach to Marriage and Family Counseling Education is Better?

The answer to this question lies perhaps not in the issue of which field is better than the other. Based upon the CACREP and COAMFTE standards, education in both types of programs seem clinically thorough and empirically "state of the art". Both offer excellent clinical models and require extensive supervised clinical training. Both also prepare the student for the competency-based examinations for certification or licensure. Therefore, given the many similarities between these two routes, the choices may come down to other issues.

With the growing popularity of these professions and the growing need for clinicians to work with families who face a variety of developmental, social, economic and educational problems, competition for space in graduate programs has become very keen. As such, the student must look at the availability of educational programs and proximity, in addition to their curricular orientations.

When comparing the standards of training and education required by CACREP and the COAMFTE, it becomes obvious that both accrediting bodies are striving to ensure excellence and rigor in education and training of marriage and family counselors/therapists. So while students may find themselves inclined toward one or the other therapeutic orientations, both avenues of study offer two excellent paths to the same professional goal. If we consider them comparable, with minor differences in philosophy and orientation, which this author does, then the student who is accepted into either program can be assured of excellent training, professional affiliations, and a promising future as a Marriage and Family Counselor/Therapist, or Licensed Professional Counselor.


Broderick, C.B. & Schrader, S.S. (1981). The history of professional marriage and family therapy. In Gurman, A.S. & Kniskern, S.S. (Eds.) Handbook of Family Therapy. (5- 38) New York: Brunner-Mazel.

Brooks, D.K. Jr. & Gerstein, L.H. (1990). Counselor credentialing and interprofessional collaboration. Journal of Counseling & Development, 68, 477-484.

CACREP Accreditation Standards and Procedures Manual (1994). The Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs.

Gurman, A.S. & Kniskern, D.P. (Eds.) (1981). Handbook of Family Therapy. New York: Brunner-Mazel.

Manual on Accreditation (1991). Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Remley, T. (1991). An Argument for Credentialing. In Credentialing in Counseling. Alexandria, Va.: American Association for Guidance and Counseling, 81-85.

Rich, M.E. (1956). A belief in people: A history of family social work. New York: Family Service Association of America.

Stevens-Smith, P., Hinkle, J.S., & Stahmann, R.F. (1993). A comparison of professional accreditation standards in marriage and family counseling/therapy. Counselor Education and Supervision, 33, 116-126.

Sweeney, T. J. (1992). CACREP: Precursors, promises, and prospects. Journal of Counseling & Development, 70, 667-672.