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How keeping your own surname changes the way people perceive your marriage

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Moya Crockett
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Couple on wedding day

Some research suggests staying as ‘Ms’ rather than becoming ‘Mrs’ can influence how outsiders view your relationship. Why is this still an issue in the 21st century?

Preparing for a wedding can be stressful. There are tactful seating charts to be drawn up (can’t seat weird Uncle Alan next to uptight Auntie Joan), budgets to be managed (how much for a photographer?!), and difficult decisions to be made about who to cull from the guest list (once you realise you can’t afford to buy dinner for 150 people). Some people find wedding planning exciting, while others would rather run naked down the high street than have a lengthy conversation about table settings.

But what shouldn’t factor into pre-marriage stress is the decision about whether to keep your surname or change it to your partner’s. After all, there are few things more personal than your actual name. And while the personal is often political, individual women should be able to use whatever surname works for them without worrying about what others might think.

However, for many women – particularly those in heterosexual relationships – decisions about surnames can be fraught. And frustratingly, studies suggest that large swathes of the population haven’t yet caught up with Stylist’s stance on the issue, which is basically: ‘Let every woman make her own choice, without accusing her of emasculating her husband or betraying the sisterhood’.  

Zoe Saldana-Perego and Marco Perego-Saldana

Zoe Saldana-Perego and Marco Perego-Saldana chose to double-barrel their names after getting married

Let’s take a look at the research. One 2017 study published in the journal Sex Roles found that women who choose to keep their own surnames after marrying a man are often perceived as having distinctly different relationship dynamics to those who take their husband’s name.

According to this research, women who keep their maiden name are generally perceived as having more authority in their relationship. Women’s decisions about their marital surnames were also found to affect how people perceived their husbands. The UK- and US-based academics who conducted the study concluded that men whose wives keep their own surnames are generally seen as being more “submissive”, “caring”, “understanding” and “timid” – all traits related to traditional ideas about femininity.

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These results should not be taken as a sign that women should change their surnames if they don’t want to, or that those who keep their own names have somehow done a disservice to their husbands. However, they do shine a light on the deep-rooted nature of patriarchal attitudes towards marriage names.

“The marital surname tradition is more than just a tradition,” said Rachael Robnett, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who led the study. “It reflects subtle gender-role norms and ideologies that often remain unquestioned despite privileging men.”

Amal and George Clooney

Amal Clooney chose to take husband George’s surname after their wedding in 2014

Robnett explained that people may unconsciously base their opinions of a married couple’s personalities on whether or not the woman has taken her husband’s name. “Our findings indicate that people extrapolate from marital surname choices to make more general inferences about a couple’s gender-typed personality traits.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers also found that people who had strongly-held traditional ideas about gender roles – as well as those who could be described as “hostile sexists” – were more likely to believe that men were disempowered when their wives kept their own names.

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“We know from prior research that people high in hostile sexism respond negatively to women who violate traditional gender roles,” said Robnett. “Our findings show that they also apply stereotypes to nontraditional women’s husbands.”

The findings of this study are backed up by previous research that shows that women who keep their own names after marriage are still viewed very differently from others. These women are often described using instrumental traits that are typically assigned to men, such as having a higher status, yielding more power, and being more self-focused, ambitious and assertive (all of which are obviously great qualities to possess).

Halle Berry

Halle Berry has been married three times, and never took any of her husbands’ names 

However, other research suggests that many people won’t give a damn what you call yourself. In a study published in the journal Gender Issues in 2017, sociologist Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer of Portland State University found that a woman’s last name choice had little effect on how her status as a wife was perceived by other women and highly educated men in the US.

While attitudes are gradually changing and many women now keep their own surnames after getting married, the name-change convention is still deep-rooted in the UK. According to research conducted by YouGov in 2016, almost 60% of women say they would prefer to take their husband’s name rather than keep their own. A slightly higher percentage of men (61%) wanted their wives to take their names.

Interestingly, different generations did not seem to have significantly different attitudes to this issue. Some 59% of women aged 18-29 said that they would want to take their husband’s surname, compared to 61% of women over the age of 60. Just 2% of women aged 18-29 said they wanted their partner to take their name, while this was the preferred option for 4% of women aged 30-44.

Ultimately, there are many different reasons why women – and men – might choose to keep or change their surnames upon getting married. If you’re deciding whether or not to change your name, remember that it doesn’t matter what other people think of you, your partner, or the power balance in your relationship: what matters is what feels right for you.

This article was originally published on 11 December 2017 and has been updated throughout. 

Images: Cindy Baffour / UnsplashGetty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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