Does a Wife Commit Less to Her Husband if She Keeps Her Maiden Name?

Elle Silver

Women have a variety of reasons for wanting to keep their own last names when they marry. These reasons have nothing to do with not being “good wives” or not being committed enough to their husbands.

“I’m demanding Alice take my last name,” my ex-husband remarked to me the other night while we were meeting to discuss our two children. Alice is his fiancée, the woman he’s planning on getting remarried to.

“I don’t think you ever really committed to me,” he added as his reasoning, “and that led to our divorce.”

Now, whatever choice Alice makes is up to her. She’s the one who wants to marry my ex-husband, and it appears that not taking his last name is a dealbreaker. I assume she will do as he says.

But where I really took pause was how my ex stated this. Yes, the “demanding” part was disturbing — but what really irked me was his belief that by not adopting his last name, I never truly committed to him.

I had a lot of personal reasons for wanting to keep my own last name. I also think the fact I kept my maiden name was the least of our problems. That did not lead to our divorce.

Our marriage ended because of my ex-husband’s extreme emotional problems, his refusal to provide for his family, and his propensity to put our children in danger.

So yes, I finally left him — but not because I never really committed to him. I left because I felt like he betrayed me. He fell through on his promise to love and cherish me. He took me for granted, expected I would be on hand to cook and clean and take care of him and his children while he gave nothing in return.

He didn’t work, he didn’t help out around the house, and he basically ignored us. He was obsessed with a bunch of hair-brained political ideas but refused to do anything to help break himself of this obsession.

However, I also think it’s safe to say that his feelings about my keeping my last name are not unusual. He’s hardly the only man on this planet who believes that a wife who doesn’t adopt her husband’s last name is somehow less committed to him.

To begin, most Americans still think a wife should always take her husband’s last name. A 2011 study showed that 72% of the respondents felt this was true, and half of those polled believed it should even be a legal requirement.

When a woman decides to keep her own last name, it simply looks bad for the man. Hillary Clinton went by her maiden name “Rodham” until Bill lost the 1980 gubernatorial re-election race in Arkansas. She changed her last name to Clinton to help Bill politically.

Disturbingly, it probably did help him. Brian Powell, a professor of Family and Gender at Indiana University, Bloomington, told The Atlantic that a woman choosing to keep her last name “…increases the likelihood that others will think of the man as less dominant — as weaker in the household.”

A 2017 study also found that a wife’s decision to keep her own last name made her come off as “self-focused” and “assertive.” (Read: selfish and bossy.)

But does this mean she’s less committed to him?

Another 2016 study showed that many men do believe that a wife’s decision to keep her own last name is a sign of her failure to commit. Granted, these were men with less education. Men with more education were more sympathetic.

My ex is a highly educated guy, and yet, clearly, he thinks my keeping my maiden name meant I never fully committed to him, and that led to our divorce.

Sorry, I just don’t agree.

Women have a variety of reasons for wanting to keep their own last names when they marry. These reasons have nothing to do with not being “good wives” or not being committed enough to their husbands.

It certainly wasn’t this way in my case.

The real reasons women don’t take their husbands’ last names.

The real reasons women don’t take their husbands’ last names are varied. It often has to do with what age a woman is when she gets married. She may have spent years cultivating business relations with people who know her by her maiden name. The sudden name change is disruptive to the business she’s built.

And yeah, speaking of keeping her “maiden name” (maiden being synonymous with “virgin”), women often cite sexism as the main reason for not wanting to adopt their husbands’ last names.

They simply don’t believe the man’s last name should be, by default, more important than their own. For centuries, this was true — the man’s last name was more important than his wife’s.

The tradition of a woman taking her husband’s last name, at least in the U.S., can be traced back to the 14th Century. This was when Britain adopted a doctrine that stipulated that upon marriage, a woman became her husband’s possession. This doctrine was brought to America by English colonists.

Thereafter, it became the norm that women would change their last names to their husbands’. Of course, the right was not extended the other way around. Even today, men only have the right to take their wives’ last names in 8 states. In the other 42 states, a man needs a court order to adopt his wife’s name. (Note: this practice, though rare, is growing in popularity.)

Upholding such a sexist tradition as a woman having to take her husband’s last name is simply distasteful to many women as it was for me. I chose to keep my last name when I married for all of the above reasons.

However, one reason I kept my last name was not because I wasn’t committed to my ex. We got divorced for other reasons, as I already explained.

More and more wives are opting to keep their own last names.

Though I never changed my last name when I married, I don’t fault women who do. The social forces pressuring women to go with the flow are strong.

However, the tides are also changing in this country. Over the past several decades, more and more women are deciding to keep their maiden names or hyphenate their last names to include both their husbands’ and their own.

It can simply no longer be taken for granted that a woman will adopt her husband’s last name when she gets married. It’s definitely a discussion that a couple needs to have before deciding to tie the knot.

My ex-husband and I had it. I said I wanted to keep my last name and he was okay with it. We got married. Unfortunately, our marriage ended in divorce.

But our marriage ended for reasons that have nothing to do with my not taking his last name.

I know I have no control over my ex-husband’s opinions. He can think what he wants. If he believes his new wife will be more committed to him if she bears his last name, then great. I hope that’s true.

But I think that relying on an antiquated tradition to make a marriage divorce-proof is short-sighted. Instead, moving beyond this tradition can prove a way for a couple to create a committed union that’s more firmly based in equality.

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I write about dating, marriage, divorce, family, society, and the city I live in: Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, CA

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