To Change or Not to Change: How Couples Navigate Last Names

Holiday engagement season is upon us and although the pandemic may have postponed or altered some couples’ plans to marry, others are still making plans to tie the knot soon. Previously I wrote a guide to egalitarian engagements and weddings, but I left out one big question many egalitarian couples face: how to navigate deciding whether to change last names.

The tradition of wives taking their husbands’ last names began in twelfth century England when women were considered property. Assuming their husbands’ last names signified ownership, as women had no legal identity apart from their husbands. While our society no longer considers women to be property, some are still critical of the symbolism and history of this tradition. With our commitment to mutual submission and shared leadership in marriage, does it still make sense for an egalitarian wife to lose her maiden name and adopt her husband’s name?

In a 2016 study by the popular wedding magazine and website, The Knot, 20 percent of brides chose not to follow the tradition of taking their husband’s last name. How egalitarian couples make this decision is a personal one, with several factors to consider. There is no clear right way for any couple, and the majority of couples still decide to make the traditional choice. However, it is important for egalitarian couples to discuss the issue and determine what is best for them and their family, rather than blindly follow the status quo.

When my husband and I were engaged, we discussed the issue of changing our last names and what felt right for us. At the time, I looked for resources and articles, both from a Christian egalitarian perspective and secular research, and found very little discussion of what factors to consider when making this decision. Many sources just covered the logistics of a name change and practical matters, like legal paperwork, but didn’t speak to the emotional or ideological reasons behind our choice. Most sources also did not give weight to the issue of equality, and how a last name change may reflect a couple’s attitudes about gender roles.

Considerations for Last Names

While time and hassle are factors, there are many deeper emotional issues to consider when making this decision. Many people feel their name is part of their identity, perhaps honoring their family lineage or cultural heritage. Many couples enjoy the sense of belonging and unity that comes from sharing a family name. Some might see a shared last name as a public declaration of commitment. The question of what last name future children might have should also be considered. Extended family members undoubtedly have their own expectations or opinions about what last name the couple and any future children should have. Personal preference plays a role as well. One spouse might feel strong pride in their ancestry and want to pass on their family name to their children, and the other might not feel as strongly. Professional considerations are important, too. A spouse with a public profession, license, or advanced degree may worry that changing their last name could impact their career, or perhaps they just feel pride for the career they built with their last name.

Options

Given these considerations, here are some ways egalitarians may choose to navigate this decision and some of the pros and cons of each option:

  1. Both take the husband’s last name. For example, John Smith and Jane Doe now become John and Jane Smith. Many couples value the tradition of having one unified family name, and this solidifies the decision of what last name future children will have. Since this is a well-established choice, friends and family often assume the husband’s last name will be used. However, some women may not want to lose their last name and may resent that it is expected.
  2. Both keep their last names. This eliminates the hassle of updating paperwork but does not address the question of the last name of future children. Some women may choose to keep their maiden name professionally, but informally use their husband’s name socially. In our example, John Smith and Jane Doe remain as such, although the wife may be referred to as Jane Smith socially.
  3. The husband keeps his last name, while the wife hyphenates her last name. Another version of this is for the wife to move her maiden name to her middle name, with her husband’s name as her last name. In this example, the wife could be Jane Doe-Smith or Jane Doe Smith. Obviously, this still involves a legal name change and practical considerations, like how the names sound together, how long will the new last name be, and when to use which last name.
  4. Both take the wife’s last name. In our example, the couple would now be known as John and Jane Doe. An uncommon choice, and one that is likely to raise reactions from family, but some egalitarians may see this as a beautiful act of submission.
  5. Both hyphenate or combine their last names into a new name. The couple could choose Smith-Doe, Doe-Smith, or an entirely new last name. This option involves the most legal paperwork, since both partners are changing their last names. However, the hyphenated option allows couples to share a last name while retaining their surnames. A new last name allows everyone in the family to have the same last name but may offend extended family members.

Personal Experience

After several conversations and much deliberation, including reading articles, talking to friends and colleagues, and consulting my licensing board, my husband and I decided that we would each keep our own last names. My biggest consideration was the doctoral degree, professional license, and career I had built as a single person under my last name. I wanted to honor that and maintain my professional reputation and presence under my last name. However, socially at church, on Christmas cards, and at our daughter’s school, I enjoy using my husband’s last name with my own. We did decide to follow the tradition of giving our daughter my husband’s last name. Over four years into marriage, we feel comfortable with the decision we made and fortunately have not faced any backlash or conflict for our choice.

In the end, there are several options for couples to consider, with emotional and practical reasons behind each choice. The decision is personal and should be made based on what feels right for both partners and their family. There is no correct way for egalitarian couples to navigate this decision, so long as the decision is made mutually, with thought and consideration to each partner’s feelings and convictions.


Originally published on November 18, 2020 at CBE.

Check out “Egalitarian from the Start: How to Have an Egalitarian Engagement & Wedding” for more wedding and newlywed tips!

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Main photo of author and her husband by Lisa Price Photography.

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3 thoughts on “To Change or Not to Change: How Couples Navigate Last Names

  1. Hi Camden,

    Re:last names after marriage:

    My Husband and I married in 1999. We considered the whole last name issue. Several options were considered, many of which you mentioned in the article. My first choice was to both change from our original last names to a shared married last name, as this would be symbolic of leaving your parents and cleaving to each other. Of course one could keep their original last name as a middle name. The brand new last name could be a name incorporating letters or elements of both original last names. Then children could all have the same last name as the family. However, my husband wasn’t comfortable giving up his original last name. I wasn’t willing to make any changes that he didn’t similarly make, again symbolic, So I did not choose to hyphenate both last names. Hyphenation is not a long-term solution for children, quickly becoming cumbersome if they continued in that manner when they marry.

    So here’s what we could both agree on. We each kept our original last names, then added our partner’s last name as another middle name. This way each of us was making a change, each of us had each other‘s name, and our signatures didn’t have to change. In terms of children, we decided any boys would have the same middle name and last name as my husband, So the family line and name could be continued. Any girls would have the same middle name and last name as me, continuing the mother’s family name. We’re proud of our creativity.

    We ended up only having one son. The only thing our families still struggle with, even now after 20 years, is my not changing my last name to his. Even though socially I’ll answer to his last name, usually with school or church, or other places where there are lots of acquaintances and it’s just simpler. I still get mail and even checks written out to me from my family with his last name. This, despite my dad and stepmother being very progressive in terms of egalitarian ideology for their generation. One thing I don’t like about our choice, is that it leaves it open for people to assume that we’re not married but living together, which is so common in our culture. I suppose if we had a girl, it would be a little more confusing with school. It can be a little difficult with some legal forms that only give you space for one middle name, but that’s not so critical.

    It will be interesting to see what my son does if he gets married when he grows up. We don’t happen to follow gender role stereotypes in our house. I am the handy person. I have the reliable FT job with benefits, so most years I am the primary breadwinner. However, my husband still earns a higher rate of pay than I do hourly, but his income varies drastically. Since the pandemic, my husband has had less work, and mine (not remote) has increased if anything. So he has taken on the lion’s share of the cooking and laundry, while working from home. Due to his visual deficits, I am the only driver, so do all the bricks and mortar shopping. I pay the bills and manage the money since that’s more my strength, and he focuses on retirement and investment choices for us. Each of our careers happen to be more stereotypical for our genders.

    Feel free to share our story with others.
    Robin

    1. That’s such a great example, Robin! Thank you for sharing with me! I do agree it can be tricky with different last names sometimes. Like you, I use my husband’s last name along with my own at our daughter’s school and at church. I was also concerned about people assuming we were not married. Fortunately it hasn’t been a problem!

    2. SO interesting to hear your perspective. I kept my last name when I got married, now 14 years ago. I’m an attorney. I’m also the 1st person in my family, extended family included – cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc to ever graduate from college. I’m proud of my name and did not want to change it when I got married. I was so surprised to see how much it upset my husband. The thought never occurred to me that he would have an issue with it… he has made his peace with it over the years. Our four children all have his last name. The only issue I sometimes encounter is that initially some of the teachers thought I was the kids’ step-mom. Otherwise, no one really cares that we don’t all have the same name. There are so many different ways families come together these days – the name really isn’t what binds everyone together anymore.

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