Staying as ‘Ms’ rather than becoming ‘Mrs’ can influence the way outsiders view your relationship, according to a troubling new study.
Women who choose not to take their husband’s surname upon getting married are often perceived as having distinctly different relationship dynamics to those who do change their name, according to new research.
The study, recently published in the journal Sex Roles, found that a woman’s choice of surname can influence how outsiders view the balance of power in her marriage, with women who kept their maiden name generally seen as having more authority in the relationship.
A woman’s decision about her marital surname may also affect how people see her husband, according to this research. The UK- and US-based academics who conducted the study concluded that men whose wives keep their own surnames after marriage are generally seen as being higher in traits related to femininity, such as being “submissive”, “caring”, “understanding” and “timid”.
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,” says 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.”
Robnett explains that people 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,” she says.
Robnett and her team conducted three experiments as part of their study. In the first, they asked university students in the US to describe a man whose wife kept her surname after marriage. In the second, they asked participants in England to read a fictional story about an engaged couple, and then surveyed them about their feelings about the woman’s surname choices.
In these experiments, the participants generally described the men in the scenarios as having more “expressive” or more loving and nurturing traits, such as timidity and kindness – qualities usually associated with lower status and femininity.
Respondents also saw the fictional men whose wives kept their surnames as having less power in the marriage and as being lower in “instrumental” traits, which often associated with masculinity, dominance and aggression.
In the third experiment, conducted with students in the US, the researchers investigated whether individuals’ attitudes towards women affected their perceptions of marriage power dynamics.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that people who had strongly-held traditional ideas about gender roles, and those who could be described as “hostile sexists”, were more likely to see men as being disempowered when their wives kept their own names.
“We know from prior research that people high in hostile sexism respond negatively to women who violate traditional gender roles,” says Robnett. “Our findings show that they also apply stereotypes to nontraditional women’s husbands.”
The findings of this study are backed up by previous studies 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.
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 that you do what feels right for you.
Images: Drew Coffman / Rex Features