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I Do, or Do Not, Take Your Name in Marriage

After getting engaged, there are practically a million decisions for brides-to-be to make. You need to pick a dress, a wedding singer, and decide on a honeymoon destination. Amidst all of these decisions, you also have to make what may be the most important decision of all (next to saying ‘yes’, of course): whether you will take your husband’s last name in place of your own. The decision is not trivial. Sure, a change in name necessitates a change in driver’s license, credit cards, passport, and even your signature, but it may also influence your self-concept (you know, that part of yourself that tells you who you are).

To determine the prevalence of name changes and potential reasons people make those changes, researchers analyzed marriage announcements printed in the New York Times between 1982 and 2002.1 Their analysis revealed that there were no differences in rates of taking the husband’s name across those two decades. Over that time period, 29% of women kept their name or hyphenated it, while 71% took their husband’s last name. The women making a nontraditional name choice (either keeping their own name-- professionally or socially-- or hyphenating their name) tended to be older, have older husbands, and were more educated. 

In a follow-up study of almost 200 women, the researchers sought to further explore differences between women who made traditional vs. non-traditional name choices. In this sample, 46% of women made a non-traditional choice, while 54% made the traditional choice of taking their husband’s last name. When asked the reason for their choice, the most common responses among those taking their husband’s last name were: bonding/family union (“I wanted our family to be one.”) and practicality/simplicity (“It was just easier this way.). The most common responses among those who did not change their name were: concerns about loss of identity (“Maintaining my own name is an important symbol to me of maintaining my own identity and honoring my family.”) and professional reasons (“I had a Ph.D. in my name and didn’t want to change it.”)  Women who kept their names (or hyphenated) were more likely to be women from ethnic minority groups, older, and more educated. In addition, those who made a non-traditional name choice held more feminist attitudes (e.g., they support equality for men and women), had higher career commitment, placed less value on the role of being a mother, and wanted to have children later in life.

Of course, these results reflect overall differences between groups of women who make these name choices. Certainly, at the individual level, a woman’s choice could reflect any one of these factors, or some combination. That is, there are plenty of women who place high value on being a mother AND who do not change their names.

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1Hoffnung, M. (2006). What's in a name? Marital name choice revisited. Sex Roles, 55(11-12), 817-825. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9133-9

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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