Hyphenating My Last Name: A Deal Breaker?

Khristi Adams

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Recently a friend and I got into a debate on Twitter after he mentioned that a woman wanting to hyphenate her last name with her husband was a relationship deal-breaker for him.

Obviously I thought it was ridiculous, which was why we got into a debate over it. I couldn’t understand why something as frivolous as a name would cause him to throw out an entire relationship- especially if that relationship was a healthy one- all because she wanted to maintain an important aspect of her earlier identity.

I was sitting with a friend a while ago and I remember her making a similar comment about a few women she knew who had hyphenated their last names. She questioned where all these women were getting the idea from because “it’s not biblical.”

I had to stop for second and think to myself, well;

1) There is no mention of instructions around last names in the Bible

2) There are plenty of literal things in the Bible that we do not literally live out. (For more on that, see Rachel Held Evans book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”.)

This does not take away from the authority or sacredness of the text, but there are clear universal, prescriptive ordinances in the Bible alongside clear descriptive advice indicative of the cultural and situational context. It will be easy for someone to read this and suggest to me that the “leave and cleave” principles apply to this as well as some of those other complicated texts on submission.

However you would spin it, there were no last names in the Bible.

It was always “such and such” of a particular area. A person was distinguished by the area that they came from or by their job. Biblical names were not Esther Jones or Matthew Johnson. Surnames is a recent tradition that came about in the Middle Ages and were adopted by different countries as the years have gone on.

So to highlight a marriage tradition that came much later and refer to it as being a biblical mandate is a bit of a stretch. It is the couple’s choice.

And given this fact, my friend has a right to his preference. But I can’t help but find myself jumping to this unnamed woman’s defense because I wouldn’t want for her or him to miss out on a very healthy, beautiful and loving relationship all because of convention.

I think that the idea of mutual submission should be lived out in practical and meaningful ways. Keep in mind that I think a woman taking her husband’s last name is a beautiful thing. I also think a woman hyphenating her name with her husband’s last name is a beautiful thing. I have a friend who was married and never took her husband’s last name at all. That, too, was her choice and he respected that. He only wanted her. I know plenty of marriages that are in shambles and the woman has her husband’s last name. I know plenty of beautiful, healthy marriages in which the woman hyphenated her last name.

So I beg to ask the question, what’s important here?

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For more on “last names”, check out The Last Name Project, a series profiling individuals and couples about how and why they decided on their last names.

And check out Khristi’s book, The Misinterpreted Gospel of Singleness, in which she offers up a cultural critique of myths surrounding singleness in the Christian community.

Khristi Adams

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37 Comments

  • Ah, I am glad to see so many shared the “leave and cleave” verse. I don’t know how often we think of our last name as our family name, but certainly, that verse could be used to support men taking their wife’s last name upon marriage more than any verse could be taken to support a woman having to take her husband’s last name.

    Good point an earlier commenter made about the hyphenation being a “deal-breaker” being indicative of other expectations he might have about marriage. For the same reason, I would not have married someone who expected me to change my name. I kept my birth name. It was confusing to a lot of people in the complementarian denomination we were a part of at the time–whenever I said that I kept my last name, people assumed I meant that I hyphenated it.

    I didn’t ever want to hyphenate because I agree with what some above have said, that there’s still an inequality there. Besides: My last name is four syllables long, and I can’t see adding something to that. 😉

    But yes, a name is a very personal thing, and there’s always a balancing of the personal and political. The paperwork (being none) for my name was simple: Dealing with people’s attitudes–and not only in the church–was the challenge. Not so much anymore, thankfully.

  • My husband and I both hyphenated our names because we wanted to share the same last name, but I truly value my maiden name and didn’t want to lose it. It has caused some hassle in regards to changing IDs and things like that, but we have other couple friends who also both share both names, and it feels nice to have community like that around. Of course, some more conservative friends and family gave us grief about it, but I feel that ultimately its our marriage and we enjoy sharing names, and I feel it also reflects to those around us our egalitarian values in our marriage.

  • My mom didn’t change her last name when my parents got married, and as a result I don’t care if my wife changes her last name should I ever get married.

  • Because marriage is a such a beautiful (and hard!) reflection of the gospel, I think there is something really lovely about the joining of last names (be it by the wife taking the husbands entirely, using a hyphen, etc.) to symbolize two souls becoming one. However, I think there is something EQUALLY lovely about a woman being proud of her family, heritage, history, etc. and wanting to hold on to that. I take pride in my last name and while I feel willing to change it when I get married, it would offend me greatly if my fiancé told me it was “a deal breaker” for me to want to keep it.

    I love reading the comments here from people in other parts of the world. It really shows the ways we (speaking as an American and of American culture) push our own culture and expectations into scripture and then call everything contrary “unbiblical”.

    It’s suggested that it would be a shame for a healthy relationship to be missed out on over something so trivial as last names, but I tend to wonder just how healthy a relationship could be if the woman isn’t being encouraged to be fully herself.

    • Just wanted to say Amen and Amen! to this: “It really shows the ways we (speaking as an American and of American culture) push our own culture and expectations into scripture and then call everything contrary “unbiblical”.”

  • Good article. I was married before many women were holding their own surnames, and to be honest, my maiden name and my husband’s would sound very convoluted together. And then you wonder, what name would your children have, and your daughters getting married … would they have tripled barrelled names… and then quadruple barrelled. I have no problem with it, but I wonder if it would not just be better to keep your own name and your husband keep his… but then, what would the kids be called?

    I’ve known a few men to take their wife’s name because their last name was not a good name. In the case of one couple i know, the guy’s last name was Pratt. In UK, if you call someone that word, it’s a major insult, so the wife didn’t want to be Mrs. Pratt… in the end, they both changed their last name to her grandfather’s last name.

    Also, and this is more relevant… the instruction to leave and cleave was to the husband, not to the wife! So anyone coming from that perspective is off beam anyway.

    • Bev, just catching up on comments and got a kick out of your Pratt example 🙂 INteresting observation about leave and cleave – should husbands be taking their wives names? Ah, it just gets more complicated 🙂

  • I happily took my husbands surname, partly to escape the bad memories my name held, and partly because I was proud to be Mrs. I did insist on my own Christian name on documents etc. I use my mothers maiden name when ever I can for family things. I have a friend who hyphenated her name because she became the same name, twice, different spelling and an s on the surname, and it was a single syllable plain boring name! Think smith smiths as an example! The other arguments are nuts, nit picking silliness I.

  • In South Africa we see more women keeping their own surnames rather than hyphenating their last name with the husband’s. Do the husbands hyphenate theirs with their wives so their surnames are the same? If not it is still unequal. To me it seems that changing names puts more value on the husband’s surname than the wife’s. I have advised my daughter to keep hers – she then won’t have to change her ID, passport, credit card, driver’s licence, bank accounts, medical details as well as her signature. And I have advised my 2 sons not to insist that their surnames be added to their wives’ because our surname is not superior to any other. This is a tradition with a lot of baggage. What about the children? – add both surnames to their Christian name; which one last? – the parents must be free to chose.

    • This is so interesting thank you for this insight!

  • I did not change my last name. My husband had absolutely NO problem with it. Other people certainly did, but I put them in their place. Our pastor told us that there is nothing unbiblical about it. All he was concerned about was the topic of submission, but since my husband believe mutual submission is the biblical mandate, that wasn’t an issue either. Churches today argue over symbolic or subjective concepts, which takes away from the beauty of the marriage covenant.

    • That’s really beautiful Suheiry. Sounds like a beautiful partnership!

  • It is simply a long-standing human tradition. I have met men that feel the same way, and women feeling like that is the thing we all must do. While I chose to take on my husband’s last name, so our kids will have just one last name, I lately have been rethinking that a lot (my husband never cared either way, it was my decision). He is supportive of me either getting my name changed back to my legal name, hyphenate it, or altogether for both of us to create a new last name that we both pick. I know that a lot of men would think him crazy, but that is what I love about him. But…that kind of mindset is almost an expectation from me–my father chose to take on my mother’s last name when they got married :). He was no less of a man for it.

    • Your husband sounds like a gem! 😉

  • This is a great conversation! I think it’s important to note that in many cultures it is not the norm for women to change their last names.
    I live in Latin America and I LOVE the way last names work here. Everyone has TWO, both their Mother’s & Father’s last name. When a couple has a child the Mom gives her first last name (paternal) to the child and the Dad gives his first last name (paternal) to the child as well. So it’s the paternal names that get passed down through the generations but every child has both a name from their Mom and Dad, respectively. That sounds really confusing! Haha here’s an example:
    Felipe Garcia Martinez & Maribel Sanchez Navarro would name their child: Baby Garcia Sanchez
    Women don’t change their last names upon marriage, but they do often informally add his first last name, to the end of their legal names. (ex: Maribel Sanchez Navarro de Garcia) which means “of Garcia”

    I have an American woman friend who married a Mexican man, and before they got married there was a lot of tension between them about her changing her name… but it was because he didn’t want her to take his name! I remember him explaining to me, absolutely dismayed because she wanted to change her name to his, “It would be such a great dishonor & disrespect to her family for her to abandon her family name to take mine.” That was a very different perspective for me to hear, but I think very noble.

    • Thank you for sharing Brittany. I am really learning so much from these comments. I was focusing so much on the biblical but the cultural is a factor as well that we all need to keep in mind.

  • I couldn’t help notice that there appears to be a sentiment in the article and some comments that the idea of hyphenating our names or somehow keeping connected to who we are and have been when we marry is a simple, unimportant thing and the one who disagrees is making a big deal out of something trivial. If that is the case then why insist on it at all? My point is that it is important and women shouldn’t have to trivialize it to make it more acceptable. Hyphenated names are more common among married women today than when I married 34 years ago. I wasn’t brave enough to buck the norm and do it myself. I’m very grateful for sites like TJP and those who contribute. It gives me so much encouragement to know that as a woman I am significant to God, even though it’s sometimes hard to find evidence of that fact in most of the Christian teaching I grew up with and still gets propagated. I’ve so enjoyed discovering writers like Rachel Held-Evans, and others who love God, but aren’t afraid to challenge some of these teachings.

    Godspeed

    • You are correct Shirley, thanks for adding that sentiment and we’re really grateful for you visiting and sharing because we can learn a lot from you too!

  • this whole question is ridiculous. I don’t know if you are aware, but changing last name upon marriage is specific to certain countries and cultures. Others dont do this. Therefore there is no way the Bible would be mandating this modern, cultural adaptation. I am married but still carry my maiden name because I was married in a foreign country, where they do not officially change names on documents. When we came to the US, I looked into changing my last name but the amount of work to change something we both had been used to for years was just ridiculous.

    • Everyone sharing seems to have such varied experiences and understandings so im glad people are sharing so others can read that theres just not one way.

  • Having survived an abusive marriage, when it ended, I legally changed back to my “maiden” name.

    Since I have been published with this last name, and have a (small) academic/art presence under this last name; therefore, should I ever be married again I will not change my name, nor will I “hyphenate”: I use Ms anyway for the business/academic world, and I don’t really see the need to change my name if I am married; and due to implicit bias, it really should not be anyone’s business whether or not I am married.

    That is not spoken with a “chip” on my shoulder, but out of good-common-sense to remove one possible, un-intended bias against future career chances.

    • Thanks Lisa. It sounds like the best choice for you is the best choice. I’ve thought about that in terms of my personal life too so its good to hear your perspective.

  • This blog is interesting as it shows the influence of culture. In some European countries, such as Belgium where I live, all women keep the name they are born with throughout their lives. This is the case whether they get married or not.
    Statements such as “it is not biblical” regarding not taking on your husband’s name are therefore shown to be a culturally-influenced understanding of what a woman should do when married

  • At least your friend is sparing future mates the pain of a bad match. I believe that “deal breaker” comment is indicative of certain expectations about marriage for which most women who want to hyphenate their names won’t be suited. He is missing out on some wonderful women, but also saving those women from wasting their time.

    • You’re so right. He was being up front and honest. So even though i disagree with him i have to acknowledge that he was “keeping it 100” up front.

  • If a simple thing like a name change is a deal-breaker, that is, sadly, his loss. I was married before hyphenated names (almost 48 years ago now), but I began using my maiden name as an additional middle name about 20 years into my marriage. So it appears on my seminary degree, my spiritual direction certification and any other official licensing papers I’ve earned since then. My original middle name is my mother’s given name and I didn’t want to lose my mother’s part of my story, so by using all 4, I am connected to myself, my mom, my dad and my husband. I like it. A lot. (And I absolutely second the earlier comment about the wording AND the meaning of the ‘leave and cleave’ verses. It is the MALE who is told to leave and cleave, not the female.)

    • The more i’ve been reading and having these conversations the more i’ve been forced to think about the meaning behind my names and why they’re so important. Thank you for sharing yours!

  • For my wife and I, it was a no brainer. We became one in Christ together. Hyphenation was a way to make that reality real in our lives. What struck me as strange was that state law forbid me from changing my name via a simple marriage license. In order for us to share a hyphenated name, I had to have my name changed months before we married. What a legal fossil from some age time’s quickly forgetting!

    By the way, there are still forms that won’t accept a hyphen. Frustrating.

  • KDunx, your perspective makes total sense to me. I think that was a good choice for you!

    As for the “leave and cleave” thing having anything to do with last names…even if we were to apply that principle to last names, the “leave and cleave” verse talks about a MAN leaving HIS family to “join” his wife. So, does that mean that anyone who takes the Bible literally should insist that men take their wife’s last name?

    Suddenly a whole lot of people begin quickly backpedaling on what “literal” interpretation means! 😉

    I hyphenated my name after six years of marriage because I always regretted giving up my maiden name. For the most part everyone was supportive. I can’t imagine a guy being willing to break off a relationship based on a name preference. There are much, much worthier reasons to break up…and to stay together 0_0

    • Not to bring pop culture into this, but Beyonce’s husband Jay-Z (in spite of some of his lyrics from time to time) officially changed his last name to Sean Knowles-Carter. They both have each others last names. Thought about that in light of your comment.

  • Great article! I’ve always thought of this as a nit-picky topic, but the deal-breaker comment makes me take it more seriously in how these ideas could negatively effect women and relationships.

    I personally have another unusual perspective to add, in that, for me taking my husbands name was the more freeing approach to starting a egalitarian marriage, but only, and I emphasize the only, because my father’s name had the mental and emotional baggage of his ideas on male leadership, headship and staunch gender roles. So for me, I just viewed it as a way to leave my dad’s cycle of male authority baggage along with his name to start a mutuality focused marriage with a new name. That may sound bitter, but it was just an intuitive choice I made that I find ironic.

    • I made a different choice for a different reason. The women on my mother’s side of the family often followed the tradition of using their maiden name as their firstborn’s middle name, and many who followed thereafter adopted the initial of their maiden name as their new middle initial with their husband’s surname. My soon to be husband actually expected met to hyphenate my name after the new tradition, as he always desired from the time that we first dated to have an egalitarian relationship with me. I decided instead to meld the tradition of my mother’s family with something I liked much better. I proudly adopted my maiden name as my new middle name.

      While attending a very high demand, complementarian church (joining it when I had no clue that such a concept even existed), I graduated from a seminary affiliated with the church until just before it was time to award degrees when I retreated to don cap and gown. She noted my name in the program and was aghast! She pointed at my name with an expression of disdain and accused me of having a hyphenated name as though I’d committed some crime. I explained my mother’s family’s tradition and commented that my mother used to joke with people who asked about her middle name if they noted her initial, making up something overtly silly. (This didn’t help, even though she’d known me for about a year and knew that I didn’t declare my middle name to anyone. But that day, my full and formal name was used.) I remember pulling out my driver’s license which was displayed right beside my nursing license in my wallet, and I pulled them out to show her. I remember her repositioning herself in her seat, somewhat disgusted.

      I left that church when I eventually learned that the church told the wives who suffered domestic violence to just endure their “punishments,” for it was not only their duty but it was also their fault. Good wives who are submissive don’t get abused, they claimed. In retrospect, I guess that I should be glad that I didn’t get counseled by both church and seminary to change my middle name on all of my official documentation. And I’m now impressed that the seminary actually consented to print my formal name as I desired in their program. They could have even abbreviated it to include my initial only.

      It just seems such a silly thing to me because it’s such a superficial aspect of a marriage.

    • Thank you! That was a courageous and brave choice of you. And very thoughtful too I might add! Thanks for sharing.

    • thank you! That perspective isn’t as much unusual as it is helpful for women like me. Thank you.

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