To Have, Hold and Hyphenate: Your Married Name

Image Gallery: Engagement Rings You can enjoy all the benefits of marriage and still keep your name. See more pictures of engagement rings.
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What's in a name anyway? Shakespeare wondered the same thing. Remember when Juliet says, "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"?

It's a valid point. You're still you no matter what your name is. Still, the decision about whether to take your groom's name or keep yours can be elusive, emotional or stressful for a lot of women who feel torn between honoring precedence and claiming independence and equality in marriage.

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The practice of taking your husband's last name can be traced back thousands of years across multiple cultures. In the U.S., it wasn't until the feminist movement in the 1970s that women really began questioning the practice.

Research shows that most women in this country still opt to change names when they get married -- and the younger you are when you tie the knot, the more likely you are to take your husband's name. A much smaller percentage of women chooses to hyphenate. And while some make a careful choice about it after much deliberation, others embrace social norms without much thought.

The name-change debate may prove thought-provoking, self-affirming or irrelevant to you. Modern brides owe it to themselves to explore their options -- starting with the hyphen. Why is hyphenating such an alluring option?

Bucking Tradition

Taking your husband's last name is a mainstream tradition. If you keep your maiden name or hyphenate your last name, you're in the minority.

Amy Bierman-Rydel did both. She kept her maiden name, but she always identifies herself with a hyphenated last name (except on legal documents).

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"I wasn't ready to give up my last name -- it had been with me for 25 years -- but I wanted to mark this new stage in my life and in our relationship by putting our names together," Bierman-Rydel says. "It felt more official, more visible. I was so happy to be married to him, so proud to call him 'mine' that I wanted everyone to know. I still toy with the idea of taking his name someday, and maybe I will. For now, I'm happy for our names to stand side by side."

Maybe you just like your maiden name and hate to see it disappear. After all, a last name is like an appendage: You get used to having it around throughout your life, and parting with it can leave you feeling strange or incomplete. Your sentiments might stem from an even deeper sense of belonging or feelings of attachment to your father, grandfather or family heritage. If your name honors those feelings, by all means keep it!

Hyphenating for Practical Purposes

For other women, making a decision about their married names is less emotional and more practical.

Professionals who've earned higher degrees or a strong reputation in their field under their maiden name -- such as lawyers, journalists and doctors -- often keep their name for the sake of professional continuity. Giving up a name might mean losing recognition with clients, readers or patients that they've worked hard to establish.

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A hyphen can help bridge the gap between past and present, and it might even hint at an important aspect of your union. To many women, the hyphen can symbolize a true 50/50 partnership in marriage -- especially if their spouses also hyphenate.

Not sure where you stand? We'll share a few reasons not to hyphenate next.

A Win-Win Solution?

Signing your name, his -- or a combination of both?
Signing your name, his -- or a combination of both?
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Pat Gill Webber grew up in Manhattan and earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University well before she met her husband. Although she'd begun her career and established her professional reputation with her maiden name, she opted for a different solution. She legally changed her middle name to her maiden name, Gill, and took her husband's last name.

"Hyphenating seemed harder than just tacking on Webber," she says. "I wanted my husband's name, but I also wanted to keep my own. So 'Pat Gill Webber' was easiest and best. I often refer to myself at Patty Webber socially and Pat Gill Webber or Dr. Pat Gill Webber professionally."

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Like many accomplished, professional women, Webber's maiden name isn't only a big part of personal identity but also a major aspect of her professional one. To maintain her reputation, she found an option besides a hyphen or a new name. For Webber and many others, choosing both names without hyphenating became the win-win solution by default: They get the best of both worlds.

Forging New Alliances -- and New Names

Deb G. found another way to play the name game. She and her husband combined elements of their last names to form an entirely new last name.

"We really saw our relationship as a partnership, the merger of two equal partners," Deb says. As for taking on his name? "Assuming my husband's name was incongruent with that belief," she continues. "When we married, we merged our names and wrote on our wedding invitation, 'As we join our lives, we also join our names, hereafter to be known as [name withheld].' "

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For instance, if Sophia Hancock married Stephen Bradley, they might become Mr. and Mrs. Hanley -- or Mr. and Mrs. Bradcock. Or Emily McComb and Nick Anderson could take the name McAnders.

Whatever married name you're mulling over, weigh all your options. Next, we'll talk about a few big-picture considerations.

Why It Matters

In some professions, it just makes sense to keep your name.
In some professions, it just makes sense to keep your name.
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The last name you choose is important … to a degree. What's more vital is how you and your spouse feel about it. After all, your name conveys information about your partnership. When you make your decision -- to keep your name, take his, hyphenate or create a new name -- think about these factors first.

Does the name:

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  • present a unified front?
  • burden your children with a laboriously long last name?
  • continue a family name or naming tradition?
  • uphold a religious precedent?
  • honor your own identity?
  • protect your professional reputation?

Hyphenating your names is just one of many ways you can address the last name debate. Here are some other options:

  • Ask your husband to hyphenate his last name with yours.
  • Part with your maiden name altogether, keep your middle name and take his last name.
  • Have your husband take your last name.
  • Keep your respective last names, and create a new surname for your children that incorporates both.

Whatever option you choose, be prepared for plenty of paperwork to reflect your name change. And, of course, you'll have to update your passport, license and other forms of identification. But all the hassle is certainly worth knowing you're happy and feel honored by your name -- old, new, borrowed or merged.

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