The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Can Brides Justify Losing Their Names?

Why do women give up their names when they marry?

American men and women are equal under the law. Yet, when they enter a marriage contract, it is the women who give up their names. Men almost never do.

There are wrinkles in the story, of course. Some women keep their own names. Double-barreled names that join the surnames of bride and groom are becoming more common but they are more likely to be used by women than men. Even feminists have a penchant for adding the husband's name to their own.

Why are modern women so willing to give up their names, or to change them? Marriage is evidently perceived as an enhancement in social status for women. By changing her name, a woman advertises her success in crossing this social hurdle. If she marries up the social ladder, a women can even bump her social status up to that of her husband's family. This provides another motive for name changes.

There are several practical reasons why women might want to be married with a formal name change, even today. First, and foremost, perhaps, is the fact that by changing her name to that of her husband, a new wife acquires legitimacy for her children, including rights to child support and property inheritance.

Giving the husband's name to children implies that he is the father although there are many cases where that is untrue. Low confidence of paternity is a problem that is unique to men so that when a woman takes her husband's name, she is stating that he is the father of her children. Since there is no doubt about who is the mother of a child, there is less reason for men to take their wives' names.

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Paternity confidence is far from being the whole story because there are many societies where women do not take their husbands' names, including many Islamic societies, Scandinavia in earlier centuries, Spain, Korea, and China, among others. Even if they do not change their names, there are other ways in which their marital status is publicized, such as by wearing wedding rings.

By assuming her husband's surname, either singly or in combination with her own, a bride is acknowledging the husband's paternity of any children. She is also making a statement about her social status in our society, given that single parenthood is much more common among the poor. Is she bragging about her success in having captured (captivated?) a marriageable partner? This feat eludes more and more women with the passage of time.

Apart from the social advantages of being married, it is very odd that so many women still adopt the husband's name when they marry. People who lose their names lose their identity. This happened during the era of slavery when captives were known by the surname of their owners. Why would anyone want to throw away their own identity and assume that of a husband?

It cannot be for convenience. Changing one's name on bank accounts and other official documents is quite a chore.

Another possibility is that marriage names are simply a way of keeping track of familial relationships - a social habit that gets passed down with the native tongue. Among English speakers, the wife generally gets the husband's name. among Spanish speakers, names of children often combine the names of both parents with a given name. It may be too cumbersome to add yet another name upon marriage.

Take your pick: social status; child support; inheritance rights, confidence of paternity, mindless tradition. Personally, I cannot understand why any person would voluntarily surrender his, or her, name at marriage. What is wrong with being yourself?!

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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