Navigating the Name Change Conversation

Apr 7, 2021 | Finances, Prenuptial Agreements, Second Marriages

…with patience, honesty, imagination, and flexibility. i.e. not with a megaphone to your fiancé’s ear. 

Planning a wedding (and a life together) after getting engaged is an exciting time involving an abundance of oh-so-fun decisions:  pumpkin spice or red velvet wedding cake?  “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” for your first dance as a couple?  Anguilla or Amsterdam for your ultimate honeymoon destination?  It is easy to get wrapped up in the thrill of wedding planning while overlooking the less-romantic reality that most of the decisions you once made independently will be made in consultation with your partner from the time you say, “I do” (and even before, if you get a prenuptial agreement!)

One of the first major decisions you’ll make is how to present yourselves as a new family.

In historical western culture, women changed their last names to match their husbands’ as a way to signal a transfer of ownership — once married, women left their parents’ family and became their husband’s property.  While married women are no longer considered the legal property of their husbands, changing their surnames in the 21st century is a normalized vestige of that law.

In the United States, around 70% of women take their husband’s surname when they get married[i].  While that percentage is lower compared to previous generations, adopting a partner’s name is clearly a widely-accepted and often assumed practice.

One HelloPrenup user recounts her experience:

“When I first broached the topic with my fiancé, we were at a bar in Orlando and had consumed several cocktails.  I nonchalantly mentioned that I planned on keeping my last name, without going into much detail.  My fiancé sat in silence, as he tends to do when he receives information that conflicts with his established world order.”

Silence can be a gift — the awkward pause can create space that allows people to fully flesh out their thoughts and opinions on challenging questions or topics.  But silence can also be the other type of silence. Rather than choosing to be curious about where the other person is coming from, that space may be filled with judgments and assumptions.

“The next thirty minutes at the bar were spent not so much in curious dialogue, but more so in an emotionally-charged, one-sided, passive-aggressive jab-fest where we were each insisting upon being understood without attempting to understand.  There is a reason we haven’t gone back to Orlando yet.

Since then, we have spent several hours in productive conversation about the name change for our impending nuptials.  We are proud of ourselves for how we have shown up for each other, attempted to listen and understand, and respected the other’s values and beliefs.  There is a simple formula for approaching a potentially tense conversation with your beloved, and if you follow it, it will be difficult for you to leave the conversation not feeling totally fulfilled and confident about your future together.”

Step 1:  Be the bird and the hand — hear and be heard by your partner

Someone once shared a poor analogy with me about couples: in every relationship, one partner is “the bird” and the other is “the hand.”  The bird in the hand metaphor implies that one partner is destined to play the role of “the patient one” who remains calm and collected, while the other partner is “the flighty one” — indecisive, uncommitted, or spontaneous.

In strong relationships with good communication, each partner should be able to intuitively pick up on when they need to be “the bird” who sends a message and when it’s time to be “the hand” who receives a message.  In a productive discussion, “the bird” can be completely honest and open about their thoughts and feelings.  “The hand” (who has an admittedly more challenging task) can absorb the energy and information without taking it personally, reflect “the bird’s” statements, and ask follow-up questions to arrive at an understanding.

In starting the post marriage name change discussion, both fiancés should be prepared to serve as both the bird and the hand, the sender and the receiver.  Multiple cocktails at a bar in Orlando are a highly discouraged pre-cursor — opt instead for an open, comfortable shared space away from distractions and potential triggers.

The first step is for each partner to share their initial thoughts on the following questions:

  • How do you feel our names should change (or not) once we get married?
    Should both partners keep their names as they are? Should one person change their name to the other’s?  Should you both combine your names in some way?
  • Let’s say both partners agree with your opinion — what does that mean to you? Below are some examples of meanings you might derive:
    • “My partner wants to change their surname to my surname, and to me, that means they love me and want to build a life with me”
    • My partner doesn’t want to change their last name, and to me, that means they have doubts or might not be fully committed to the relationship”
    • “My partner wants to keep their surname as it is, and to me, that means that it is important for them to retain a sense of their personal identity in our relationship.”
  • What emotion(s) are connected to your meaning? Emotions are feelings, captured in the examples below:
    • “My partner’s desire to change their last name to mine makes me feel joyful, elated, and passionate.”
    • “My partner’s desire to keep their last name makes me feel afraid and insecure.”
    • “My partner’s desire to keep their last name makes me feel proud and confident.”
  • What belief(s) are connected to the meaning and emotion?
    • “I believe that agreeing on this matter means we will agree on most things.”
    • “I believe that disagreeing on this matter means we will disagree on most things.”
    • “I believe that agreeing to disagree is essential in a long-term relationship.”
  • On a scale of 1-10, with 1 as extremely unimportant and 10 as extremely important, how important is it for your partner to agree and act in alignment with your opinion?
  • What would it mean to you if your partner had a different opinion?

The goal of answering these questions one at a time is to clear the conversation of potential assumptions and landmines.  We all have our own family backgrounds and significant life events which influenced our beliefs about what should and should not be.  Someone who was raised in a family with two parents celebrating their 25th anniversary may have vastly different perspectives than someone whose parent got divorced three times in ten years.  Your conversation isn’t about judging your parents’ failures; it’s about getting clear on why you and your partner feel strongly about certain things in life, and not making the mistake of thinking their deep-seated beliefs are reactions to a present conversation and its potential triggers.

Step 2:  Paint a vivid picture — explore and discuss all options

After each person shares their initial thoughts, it is a good idea to do what you can to make sure your partner feels heard and understood.  Approaching the decision like it is an exploratory adventure versus a set-in-stone law will help both partners when you move to the second step, which is to paint a vivid picture of what each possible scenario might look like.  For each of the scenarios below, use your imagination to visualize what the change would look, sound, and feel like in your life.  What other areas of your life might it impact?  How do you feel in each scenario?

Scenario #1:  Both partners keep their names

In recent years, roughly 20% of married women decided to keep their names[ii].  Even if both partners immediately agree that they each should keep their own names, it is important to visualize moments when they will need to be on the same page in the future.  They should be prepared to support their partner’s decision when others ask, and they should both feel secure in their relationship despite the fact that their last names won’t match.  One option would be to keep their names for now and be open to returning to the discussion if someone changes their mind or feelings.

Scenario #2:  Both partners change their names

For the remaining 30% of women who do not take their spouse’s last name, approximately 10% decide to hyphenate it[iii], which involves combining your last name with your partner’s last name.  Hyphenating your last names allows partners to retain their professional identities and continue their lineage, if those matters are personally important.  While double-names can be tedious to write out on forms and cause initial confusion, the option to hyphenate or combine may be a great compromise for an open-minded couple.

Scenario #3:  One partner changes their name

There are several flexible options here:

  • One partner legally changes their surname to their partner’s surname
  • One partner legally changes their surname but continues to go by their original last name professionally or socially
  • One partner legally changes their previous surname to their first or middle name, then adopts their partner’s surname as their own

“I wanted to keep my last name because it signifies my professional reputation and because I believe I should be able to thrive in a loving relationship while also retaining my personal identity.  I will change my legal last name to my partner’s surname, but continue to run my business and respond to my current surname or new legal surname. While we do not want children now, I communicated with my partner that I would love for our child to have his surname.”

If you are clear on whether or not you want to have children after marriage, be sure to include them in your visualizations — what would your child’s last name be based on your decision?  It may be helpful to use the same questions from the first step if the hypothetical child’s last name requires a separate conversation.

Step 3:  Let it marinate — give yourself time to get right with a big decision

After you have visualized and fully explored all viable options for you and your partner, do not feel obligated to make a decision at the moment.  It is likely that a lot of things came up for you during this discussion, and you may need time to explore your own meanings, emotions, and beliefs in depth before making a commitment.  Share with each other how much time you need, and be prepared to support your partner in making the decision that’s right for them.

Our names are a major part of our identity.  They represent our lineage, our reputation, and often, our enterprise.  Creating an opportunity to explore your names and what they mean is an excellent way to get to know your partner and what is important to them.  If you openly communicate your feelings and acknowledge those of your partner, visualize and explore all possible scenarios, and give yourself time to feel confident in your decision, you will arrive at a decision that empowers you both forward as a couple.

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/upshot/about-the-maiden-name-analysis.html

[ii] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2012/11/07/a-comparison-of-results-from-surveys-by-the-pew-research-center-and-google-consumer-surveys/

[iii] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2012/11/07/a-comparison-of-results-from-surveys-by-the-pew-research-center-and-google-consumer-surveys/

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