Marriage, divorce and surnames

Children|Divorce|Family|February 21st 2013

Let’s talk about surnames. They’re very easy to take for granted and most of the time we don’t give them much thought at all. We might have an unusual surname but even then, spelling it out over the phone to strangers just becomes part of every day life for most of us. We might occasionally wonder what our surname means and where it comes from, but most of us don’t really have the time to find out.

And yet, introduce marriage to the mix and this harmless little badge of our background may suddenly acquire political overtones. Once that romantic proposal has been delivered and accepted, both halves of the future couple have a lot to think about. Yes, there’s the venue and the date and the decorations and the cake and the invitations and hundred other things, but there is also the quietly lurking issue of whether the wife should take her husband’s surname.

Of course that’s always been the convention and many women still have no problem adopting their husband’s name. Perhaps they never really liked the one they were born with! Perhaps they like the reassurance and sense of stability conveyed by a married name.

But for some, it’s a social norm that makes them uncomfortable and I can see their point of view. After all, why should the wife’s identity be subsumed into the husbands in this symbolic way? It is the 21st Century after all, and modern marriage is a union of equals.

And just thoughts are not confined to brides to be. Some men feel awkward about this obviously unequal, even sexist ritual with its overtones of ownership. Expecting your new wife to take on your surname can seem like a real imposition.

This is a subtle but insidious issue that can cause squabbles and even serious arguments between engaged couples. Of course society is firmly on the side of convention. Everyone from insurance brokers to school teachers still expects married couples to have the same surname and many women decide, that whatever their private feelings, that it just isn’t worth swimming against such a tide.

And then there’s divorce! If that marriage which began so hopefully staggers to a close, do you drop your husband’s name again? It seems like an obvious thing to do, especially if the marriage ended on bad terms, but in practice it’s not such an easy change to make. After years, even decades as Mrs Smith, suddenly becoming Mrs Jones again may seem like a real wrench. Just think of the bureaucracy and the endless explanations!

And of course, changing back would usually also means having a different surname to your children. Children’s surnames cannot be changed without permission of the courts and this permission is rarely given. For many divorced or divorcing women, changing back to their maiden name would be a bridge too far for the latter reason alone. A name that may once have seemed like the most sexist of conventions has now become a visible badge of their bond with the most important people in their life.

In a recently published post, blogger ‘Aunt Beckydiscussed her own journey towards acceptance of her married name and her decision to keep it in spite of her imminent divorce. She concluded “It’s, quite frankly, become part of who I am”.

I think this is a conclusion that many divorcees reach. But everyone is different and it has to be said that some women cannot wait to change back! Legally it’s a relatively simple process and can be done by making a statutory declaration – a legal document in which you declare your new name. Or old name, depending on how you look at it!

Photo by Seth Reineke via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence


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  1. John Macfie says:

    It is interesting how conventions, and law, differ. In Scotland the tradition has always been that women may choose to retain their own names. They are described in legal documents as “Jane White [maiden surname] or Doe [married surname]”. The gravestone might read “Jane White, relict of John Doe”. I understand that in Germany and other continental jurisdictions the parties to a marriage may make a choice: each to retain and use their own surnames, or for the wife to adopt the husband’s, or husband to adopt the wife’s surname. There may also be (as appears to be common in the U.S.A.) hyphenateion. I am told that in Iceland they do not have surnames at all, so they are altogether relieved of the difficulty . The practices of Portugal and Spain with names make the mind boggle …….

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