Why Men Don't Take Their Wives' Names, According To Some Who Did

06/16/2015 02:51 pm ET

In the lead up to his June nuptials, Joshua Walker had his hands full with the usual pre-wedding logistics -- meeting with the DJ and helping friends with travel plans. But when Walker spoke to The Huffington Post just days before he was to stand up in front of his family and friends, and commit himself to a relationship for life, he was also trying to determine if he and his fiancé would, in fact, be legally marrying when they exchanged vows.

After several confusing conversations with the Nebraska marriage license department and with a handful of attorneys, the couple was contemplating sneaking off to the courthouse in neighboring Iowa after the ceremony, where the necessary marriage-related paperwork would be far easier.

All of this bureaucracy was because Walker, a 28-year-old auto mechanic, hoped to do what women in this country do every day: take his spouse's last name.

For proof that it is still radical for a man to take his wife’s last name, one need look no further than the hundreds of headlines actress Zoe Saldana grabbed when she announced her husband had taken hers, joining a small band of male celebrities, like Shawn Knowles-Carter and Jack White. (Saldana later clarified that she and her husband had both taken each other’s surnames). The reactions the news stirred -- a mix of praise, incredulity and derision -- beg the question: What is it like to be in the small group of men in this country who buck marital naming traditions, becoming Mr. Fill-In-Wife's-Name-Here?

There is little good, hard data on how many men in the United States actually take their wives’ surnames, but name experts say it is rare -- so rare that “any survey would have trouble picking it up,” Laurie Scheuble, a senior lecturer in sociology at Penn State who studies naming, told HuffPost.

In the absence of hard numbers, surveys have attempted to capture whether attitudes toward marital naming have loosened in any real way.

Overwhelmingly, they haven't.

“I have been doing surveys on surname choices since the 1980s, and have done one every 10 years or so. In the '80s, I would get very haughty responses from men to the question, ‘Would you consider hyphenating with your wife’s surname?’ Some were really rather rude,” said Donna Lillian, a linguist with Appalachian State University. “In the mid-'90s, they were maybe less hostile, and in the 2006 survey, the same thing. But you could still count on less than one hand how many men, out of a sample of around 3,000, expressed willingness to even consider it.”

In a June poll of 1,000 adults taken by YouGov for The Huffington Post, only 7 percent of respondents said it was “great” if a man took his wife’s last name upon marrying; 30 percent felt it was “fine” and 40 percent felt it was “a little odd” -- though the survey did reveal more openness to the idea among younger respondents. Sixteen percent of 18 to 29 year olds said it was great if a man took his wife’s last name, compared to zero percent of those age 65 and up.

One potential barrier to change is simply the logistical challenges associated with a man changing his name, which is why Walker -- who hopes to become Erixon -- was still struggling to make sense of how to change his name just days before his wedding.

“There are only a handful of specific states that allow men to use a marriage license to change their names, and if a man doesn’t live in one of those states, he has to go through the legal name-change process, which is lengthy and expensive,” said Danielle Tate, founder and CEO of Miss Now Mrs, a site that helps newlyweds through the process of changing their names. California, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and North Dakota are the only states that let men change their names using just a marriage license, she said, whereas women can legally change their names by simply writing it on the license in all 50 states with “zero issues.”

But experts say the real roadblocks have far more to do with entrenched gender expectations in heterosexual relationships. There are few if any depictions in pop culture of husbands who have taken their wives' names, and only a handful of celebrities who have drawn attention to the practice.

“It’s all about how we socialize men and women,” Scheuble said. "When I ask my students, ‘When you were in middle school, did you ever practice writing your first name with the last name of a person you really liked?’ the men laugh at me. But the women all say, ‘Yeah I did that.’”

“Taking your wife’s name is a norm violation for men,” she continued. “People call them not-manly, and in our society, that’s a humongous insult. I think that the change will be really slow.”

Walker, for example, said that while many people he’s told about his decision to take his wife’s name have been very open to the idea, he has definitely encountered people who've questioned what it says about the power dynamics in his relationship.

“I’ve heard the, ‘She’s got your balls on the mantle' jokes," he said. "‘She’s got your balls in her purse.’”

“It’s not like she walked up to me and said, ‘This is what’s happening. This is how it’s going to be,’” he continued, adding that it felt important for his wife to pass on her family name to future generations. “She made her case; I had a chance to say no... when I do face hostility to it I just think, ‘Why? Why is this a big issue? This has nothing to do with anybody but us.’”

One woman HuffPost spoke to for this story -- whose husband recently took her last name after 13 years of marriage -- asked that only their first names be used because the pair had not yet told family and friends and she worried about their reactions.

“It’s not like we’re ashamed at all, because we’re not,” said Sarah, 33, explaining she had originally taken her husband’s name when the couple married in their early 20s, but it had never felt like it was really hers. After she went back to using her maiden name, her husband decided -- unbeknownst to her -- that he wanted to take it as well.

Though Sarah and her husband are happy with his new name, at least in part because they believe it is more emblematic of their equal relationship, they are uneasy about how others will perceive it. Sarah’s husband did not initially tell her he was changing it because he wanted her to be able to tell people that not only did she not coerce him, she wasn't even aware of his plans at first. Sarah worries about the jabs he will take, particularly after a Facebook acquaintance who heard about the name change asked her if her husband also planned to wear a dog collar.

Even couples who follow the more familiar path of hyphenating their last names face say they face occasional criticism. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Kurtis and Deidra Greene-Richards, both 35, officially combined their names, partially because it felt odd for their children to have only their father’s last name, which somehow seemed to suggest Kurtis’ family’s history was more important than his wife’s.

“When I started at my job, we hadn’t made the change, so most people know me as Richards still. When they see my profile on LinkedIn, that starts the conversation. [People say,] ‘Your name is hyphenated? That’s interesting. That’s pretty cool -- tell me about that,” Kurtis said. “But I have had people challenge my masculinity, saying, ‘Why did you take your wife’s last name? That’s not what men do.’”

“And that was from a woman,” he added.

Yet most of the couples interviewed for this story reported they have also had at least one encounter that has made them feel like they might be early adopters of what will one day be a more common practice (and Saldana herself took to Facebook to express her feelings that men who take women's names will be remembered by future generations as men who "stood by change").

When Jessica Sheldon, 24, and Casey Arredondo, 27, sent out invitations for their recent wedding, they announced their intention to create a new surname combining both their last names, by asking guests to celebrate them as they became "Mr. and Mrs. Arreldon." ("It felt really important to me to have something blended," Jessica said.)


Jessica and Casey's wedding invitation.

A lot of family members were "hesitant" about the name change, Casey said, and several of his family members didn't show up to the wedding because of it. Jessica added that people made a far bigger deal out of Casey changing his name than they did about her changing hers.

"But our friends were really supportive, they really were," she said. "And when we talked with them, we found out [a lot of them] had also discussed different options, like should we hyphenate? Or have the man take the woman's name? That's cool because 30 years ago that wouldn't even have been a discussion. It was nice to realize that at least there are discussions happening, even if couples end up picking the traditional option."

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted June 9-11 among U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the poll's methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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