As someone with a mildly embarrassing surname, I think about names a lot.
My wife kept her surname when we got married, initially due to inertia. We have a fairly complicated financial setup, so the admin of notifying a dizzying number of financial institutions about a change of name was something we naturally found excuses to put off for years on end.
This turned out to be a good thing, because it gave her thinking space – so rather than getting swept up in tradition, she decided it was an anachronistic concept and having a different name from me didn’t make us any less of a family.
In the UK, nearly 90% of women change their name upon marriage. But in the future, I believe more and more people will choose to do differently…
A few caveats to stop people shouting at me before we get started
1. Of course, it’s not always the woman in a mixed-sex partnership that changes her name – but it seems that men change their names less than 3% of the time, so it’s fair to address the default position of the woman being the one to make the change.
2. All the same arguments apply to same-sex couples. My assumption is that same-sex couples are more likely to make a conscious choice about changing names rather than defaulting to “the way people tend to do things”, but I could be wrong.
3. There will, of course, be many individual, personal reasons why someone might want to seize the opportunity to shake off a family name – such as distancing themselves from an abusive father, obscuring ethnic origins that might lead them to be discriminated against, and many others. I just don’t believe that accounts for anything like the majority of name-changes.
Hey, this is the internet so I’m sure I’ll manage to offend some people anyway, but I’ve tried. Onwards…
Why not change your name?
If you think about it, there are lots of solid practical reasons not change your name:
- 42% of marriages end in divorce, so a sizeable minority of women will need to either revert to their former name, change it again if they remarry, or continue through life with the name of an ex-partner.
- The most obviously compelling reason for a name change is for all members of a family (including children) to have the same name. However, this won’t necessarily work if the mother remarries or reverts to an old name. Also, with blended families becoming common, it’s not unusual for (half)-siblings to have different surnames anyway.
- Even a single change of name can make professional life more complicated. For this reason, some women continue using their original name for professional purposes anyway, leaving them to deal with the complication of juggling two names.
Then there’s the big one: taking the husband’s name comes from the traditional view that upon marriage the woman goes from being the property of her father to the property of her husband. I would have thought that a lot of people in the modern world (husbands included) wouldn’t be comfortable with that association.
So why isn’t it more common to keep your name?
I suspect it’s the reason a lot of things happen: because changing your name is “what people do”.
If everyone’s happy with the arrangement, that’s fine: people should do whatever the hell they want to do. I’m just surprised that although there’s been a small shift towards hyphenating or not changing names at all, there hasn’t been more of a shift considering how much gender dynamics have changed in other ways over the last 50 years.
It also seems a bit strange to me that when a mixed-sex couple with different surnames (whether married or not) has a child, the child tends to be given the man’s surname. I sort-of get it for practical purposes, but I’m still surprised that it’s such a common default. I guess hundreds of years of “this is how we do things” is a powerful force to overturn.
Anyway, in my family we’ve found the perfect solution: the kids get my surname, and the kids’ teddies get my wife’s. It’s this spirit of compromise that undergirds a healthy relationship.