What’s in a name? While marriages between opposite-sex couples have been in gradual decline in the UK since the 1970s, with nearly 250,000 marriages in England and Wales in 2016, the vast majority of wives still take their husbands’ names. Although there are no statistics available for the UK, only 3% of men in the US changed to their wives’ surnames, a 2016 study found.
For Nick Black, the decision to take his wife’s name was part of a wider refiguring of his family’s identity after he got married last year. “I was never that wedded to my former surname, Earley,” he says. “I’m part of a compound family, and have a sister by birth and two siblings by marriage, so we have always had different names. For me, family isn’t tied to a name. My wife, on the other hand, is from a very small family, and so it was more important to her to keep her name.”
Although Nick’s father was taken aback when Nick first mentioned the name change, and initially responded with silence, he says the ensuing reactions have been generally positive, with his wife’s colleagues even labelling him a “modern man”.
“There’s a bit of wistful sadness to be losing something you’ve had with you for your whole life,” he says. “But now, when I use Black, I get that warm feeling of being reminded that I’m married. It wasn’t a huge leap for me, and I would like to think both partners in a relationship would be respectful of the significance of each other’s names, regardless of any wider gender politics.” However, Nick does think that a new wife being expected to take her husband’s name is a worrying continuation of the notion of possession. “The whole practice is so archaic,” he says. “I didn’t even tell my parents before I asked Laura about it, and I didn’t have any intention of asking her dad, either. It didn’t feel appropriate because it’s a decision for me and her.”
In 2017, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Rachael Robnett, conducted a study into how perceptions of men change based on the names their wives take. The results were, perhaps unsurprisingly, reflective of gender norms. Men whose wives chose to keep their own names were viewed as “timid”, “submissive” and as holding less power within the relationship. “Women are perceived as more powerful if they keep their names, and we were shocked at the pervasiveness of gendered stereotypes when it comes to men,” Robnett says. “It will take a long time for men taking their wives’ names to catch on, as heterosexual traditions are so embedded. You’re more likely to see people turning away from marriage rather than trying to reform the institution itself.”
For 60-year-old Mark Cashion, his former surname made him the butt of taunts for the first half of his life. Born Mark Polack – a pejorative term for Polish immigrants in the US – the link to his father’s Polish heritage is one he had grown to hate because of his name. So when he married Megan 20 years ago, he took her surname.
“My previous name was so preposterous and such a burden, I couldn’t wait to get rid of it,” Mark says. “All my uncles anglicised theirs to Pollock, but my dad was a proud fool and wanted to keep it. I was always Polack at school and that really cut me deeply – it meant I had no positive relationship with this name, and I didn’t have much of a relationship with my father, either. When we got married, it just made much more sense to take my wife’s.”
His family’s reactions to his decision were mixed, though. “Initially, I thought he was joking,” Megan says. “But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. My family has deep roots in our area of New Jersey, and there weren’t any men in my family. So the name would have died if I had changed mine.” Despite being “uber-conservative”, Megan’s father was also OK with the name change. His sister called him a “renaissance man”, although his brother was less flattering at the time. “It felt like such a huge weight had lifted,” says Mark. “I sat at my kitchen table and practised writing my new name, and how I wanted to sign it. Women have been doing this for generations, but I didn’t know how much work it would be: new passport, new bank account, new everything. But it was all worth it.”
Even Mark’s brother had a change of heart, and when his first daughter was born, he gave her his wife’s surname. “What a hypocrite,” Mark laughs.
British-born Adam Kustura met his now-wife, Arnesa, when they were living in the US. After they married, they moved to the UK with Arnesa’s daughter. “It wasn’t meant to be a big statement,” Adam says. “Marriage as an institution is so old-fashioned, but it was a necessity for us – we at least thought we would modernise it somewhat by me taking Arnesa’s name. She is from Bosnia and has strong ties there, so I wanted to take the same name as her and her daughter to make us more of a family unit.”
Source: The Guardian