Amidst the hand-wringing over the seismic shift in marriage in America, there is an equal amount of wrangling over what traditions should be followed since women in the 21st century have choices, like whether to take a spouse’s name.
With respect to this issue, like so many others, we stand on the shoulders of those brave women who have gone before us and fought the battle for equality. One in particular who tackled this subject in 1855 was Lucy Stone. She refused to take her husband’s name when she married Henry Blackwell, a crusader himself for women’s suffrage (God Bless the man). Lucy’s sole focus was on winning equality for women through legislation which, more often than not, was in vain. She suffered ridicule, as did he when she was denied the right to vote because, at the time, a married woman could only vote under her husband’s name and presumably how he told her to. But Mr. Blackwell was by her side, supporting her through all the disappointment, urging her to continue the fight, and helping her organize the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
Too often, we forget about the scores of women who suffered unimaginable abuse, both physical and emotional, to give us the choices (albeit limited to things not related to control over our bodies) that we have today. But I digress. What I want to share with you is the anecdotal data I’ve collected as a woman who has been married three times and as a family lawyer. I’ve seen too many brides taking more time choosing their wedding gown rather than considering whether changing their name will be the right fit for them? only to regret it later.
Certainly, whether a woman keeps her name or changes it to her spouse’s is a matter of personal choice, and given that the marriage rate has fallen steadily over the last few years, it’s a good quandary for a bride to be in. But knowing a brief history of the institution you’re about to participate in may help you consider the pros and cons related to the choice you make in regards to your name.
For millennia across all cultures, marriage was a system that insured male political and economic authority. Surely, people fell in love during those thousands of years, and sometimes it was even with their spouse, but marriage was not based on something as irrational as “love.” Our ancestors believed that with marriage came a set of rigid rules to be followed. That was until the ideal of love and lifelong intimacy took hold, and people began to expect to live in a loving relationship, not an institution. Although for some, marriage was and still may be tantamount to feeling as if they’re living in a mental institution.
Today’s expectation is that “the one” we fall in love with will come packaged with the ability to fulfill our need for intimacy, adventure, excitement, romance, to be sexually exciting, and offer comfortable compatibility, with a tiny bit of edge to avoid the boring parts of married life. Notice the lack of need to be controlled or become the other person’s property, which far too many men have been socialized to believe is their right, indeed, their role in a marriage. For those who keep their maiden name, consciously or unconsciously, this may be the major reason, to set the ground rule that they are an independent, committed partner in the union because they desire to be and not out of some medieval notion that their identity is erased and subsumed into the other spouse after marriage.
What does all of this have to do with keeping your name after marriage? That’s for you to think about. Wherever your analysis takes you, you will be better for giving it some thought and some discussion with your intended. If your future spouse balks at the idea of you keeping your maiden name, do yourself a favor and ask yourself “why”? Could it be that this is a red flag that your spouse may be overly controlling?
If so, remember, marriage is not a reclamation project. We’ve all heard the adage, “You can’t change another person, only yourself.” When in love, hope springs eternal. But hope, although it has an important role in a relationship, especially in conflict situations where it allows one spouse to accommodate the other to resolve an issue, does not change personality, prejudices, habits, or beliefs. As Dr. John Gottman, the world-famous marriage researcher, explains, “when a couple starts to focus on the negative qualities of their spouse it’s like checking into a roach motel for lovers, which becomes a prison.”
The long and the short of it is, give what you’re getting yourself into as much thought in terms of what each of your expectations is for your marriage as you would for the expectations you have when picking out the venue for it. And also, remember there are always options in love, in life, and in considering the issue of what to do about your name. Below is a list of a few.
Keep Your Name
It’s a personal choice since no law in the United States requires you to change it. One of the biggest reasons not to elect this option is the question, “But what if we have children, I want us to be a family.’ The problem with blindly following tradition is no one ever goes beyond what others have decided for them. Today, a name does not define a family, and neither does DNA. What makes a family is the love the members have for each other, their commitment to promoting each member to become their best, and their support in the process. One final note, children do not care what you call them; they only care how you treat them. At least that’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth.
If you’re inclined to delete your last name because your future spouse balks at you keeping it, try discussing hyphenating it. If that doesn’t work, please get premarital counseling.
Your Maiden Name as Your Middle Name
I personally tried this twice. Although it didn’t help save the marriage, it also didn’t cause its dissolution.
Combine Two Names to Form a New One
This is an option if you tend to be avant-garde and New Age. It works for a lot of couples.
Finding what works for you is all that matters. Let me know in the comments below if it helped.
Love this blog! I wish I had thought longer about this topic before getting married! It is a complex decision and deserves to have time and energy devoted to it. This article definitely helps get that conversation going!