Several years ago, on the eve of his second wedding, a friend told me that he was going to change his last name to that of his fiancee instead of her taking his last name. He didn’t want to perpetuate the paternalistic pattern that this tradition implied. All the air was let out of his sails when his brother jokingly stated, “So you’re just going to take her father’s name instead of ours.”
The idea of changing names is a perfect metaphor for the merging of two lives that a successful marriage requires. It brings up issues of identity, independence, and what it means to be a family. Are you still you if you you’re called by another name?
Is Your Name Your Identity?
Katie Rosman, author of the Checks & Balances column in the Wall Street Journal, went public with her and her husband’s ongoing disagreement over her not changing her name after they married. His main point was that he wanted them to share a family name. For her, the issue “was (and is) simply that it was (her) name.” It was the name she was born with and she didn’t want to change it.
Katie’s point was that it took her “30 years to get a sense of who (she) was, and to get comfortable with all that entailed.” She didn’t want to let go of that person. Katie didn’t want to “create the expectation that that I could morph from one thing to another.” But setting herself apart created other challenges.
The issue arose again once they had children. By this time, changing her name would be more difficult, even if she wanted to, which she really didn’t. One day, after her husband chastised one of the kids by saying, “Team Ehrlich doesn’t litter”, the child asked, “Is Mommy on Team Ehrlich?” One of Katie’s reader’s responded to that comment by stating that she couldn’t be part of Team Ehrlich for the simple reason that she chose not to be. And, in some respects, she did.
Marriage: Coercion or Conversion?
When two people marry, they form a united entity. There are multiple ways of dealing with the name issue: use yours, use your partner’s, use both, hyphenate, create a new one, or each use your own. Because the real issue isn’t the name, but the meaning behind it.
My real challenge is with another explanation Katie gave for retaining her name. Despite using her maiden name professionally, she admits answering to Mrs. Ehrlich from her children’s friends or when calling the pediatrician. She acknowledges that legally changing her name would only amount to a word change on her driver’s license. Yet, she states, “somehow it feels to me akin to converting for the sake of marriage to another religion without truly believing in the faith.”
While she might not have meant to, what she’s saying is that she’s holding herself apart from the marriage because she isn’t willing to convert, or give herself over, to it. Marriage is a process of morphing from one thing to another. You can’t remain single and be married at the same time. It won’t work. Trying to hold yourself apart will result in the failure of the unit.
Besides, life is a process of constant change. No one truly stays the same over time and why would you want to. Marriage is just one of the many choices in that process of change. You won’t lose your identity in your marriage unless you choose to, no matter what name you use.
What name(s) do you and your spouse use? How did you decide? Does your name define you? Do you worry about losing yourself in your marriage? Why or why not?