Halley Suitt has a common story on Misbehaving about changing or keeping a former husband’s name after a divorce.

A male friend (who’s divorced) asked me what I thought about asking your ex to change her married name BACK to her maiden name.

I had no clue really, despite being divorced, since I never changed my name in the first place and never changed it back.

Behind his question is his desire that she change it — essentially release HIS name — and return to hers. She doesn’t want to.

I’d never thought of it from a man’s point of view, that he might want his ex to stop bearing his name. And that she would want to retain it.

If I had changed my name, I would want to go back to my original name … but it’s moot, as I can’t now and couldn’t then imagine changing my name anyway.

We all know names are important to us, judging from the last conversation we had on name changing and marriage, but what about names in the case of divorce?

In this setup, the former husband seems to think that his name is a sort of property right that his former wife should give back to him after the divorce, but as Liz Lawley says in the comments at Misbehaving, “If the woman he married changed her name when she married, it was her choice to do so, and it became a part of her identity when she did. The fact that she’s now divorced doesn’t nullify that act or that part of her life… I find myself wondering why he’s threatened by her retention of that name. What possible impact does it have on him what his ex-wife chooses to use as her name? Sounds like a control issue to me.”

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a control issue. I remember the nervous, nasty feeling I felt at the beginning of my breakup with E’s father when I received mail from Ethan’s schools and activities addressed to the W—- family. That was not and had never been my name and I didn’t want to be called such. It felt like an identity intrusion, even an affront, and I think if this guy has good intentions this is probably what he is feeling as well, that somehow her use of “his” name intrudes on his new single Self.

What he doesn’t understand by his statement is that the name she chose for marriage is now hers as well, and might do her professional favor to keep it among other numerous factors. I’ll bet he didn’t have a problem with the initial change.

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24 comments for “Naming

  1. Bertson
    June 29, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    It’s his right to ask, and I can understand why he would. It’s her right to say no, and I can understand why she would.

  2. June 29, 2005 at 5:36 pm

    My parents divorced after 25 years of marriage. My mother had changed her name when they were married, and decided not to change it back. Her reasoning was that she had had this surname longer than she’d had her “maiden” name. So why confuse herself and others?

    On the other hand, my father got remarried and hyphenated his name, with his new wife’s old married name – his surname. Interesting stuff.

  3. June 29, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    I think it’s shitty to ask.

    And I think this is a good reason for men to encourage their wives to keep their names.

  4. June 29, 2005 at 6:30 pm

    I wonder if this same guy was one who made a big fuss about her taking his name in the first place. If he is that big of a control freak jerk, the woman would probably do best to go back to her maiden name anyway.

  5. June 29, 2005 at 7:20 pm

    Heh–don’t y’all remember that’s what Ike Turner did to Tina Turner? Yeah, i’ts about control. My mom’s ex-husband had the opposite reaction–when he saw that part of the divorce decree was that her name was changed back to her maiden name, he shit a brick. Right there in the court house! I really thought he was going to explode.

  6. Harrison Bolter
    June 29, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    When my wife and I got married almost 20 years ago, she decided to keep her last name. I told her that I didn’t care what she called herself as long as she married me–and I still feel that way. Actually, it’s kind of fun–she’s Asian-American and has an Asian last name, so when people meet me (the white boy), they sometimes look very confused. My two cents…

    By the way, I just discovered your site and am really enjoying the writing and photos!

  7. June 29, 2005 at 7:48 pm

    Her name, her decision. Nothing’s keeping the (ex-)husband from adopting and keeping her birth surname.

    It’s not like we own our last names anyway: they’re a sort of commons shared with a whole lot of other people.

  8. June 29, 2005 at 7:51 pm

    Were you married to him? You took his name? Interesting. I think it is definitely the right of a woman to keep her married name.

  9. June 29, 2005 at 8:20 pm

    No, Brandon, we never married. It is an assumption that I get through E’s schools and activities and whatnot that a) we are married, b) were married, and c) I took his last name simply because I allowed E to have it.

    None of these are true. We never married and my name is my own. Ethan and I have different last names. Is that so hard to handle? Now I get mail addressed to The Ethan W—– Family. That does me just fine.

  10. gayle
    June 29, 2005 at 8:52 pm

    I kept my birth name from the get go and continue to take shit for it from professional acquaintances to people who don’t know me at all.

    I have no intention to divorce, but really? Must everyone inquire as to why I didn’t take my husband’s name? Is it everyone’s business?

  11. Jeff
    June 29, 2005 at 9:01 pm

    My mother has been married twice, and took her husband’s name both times. After the second divorce, she changed her name back—to the name of husband #1. I’ve never spoken with her about it in any depth, but the second divorce was on bad terms, and I guess she doesn’t want to associate herself with her parents.

  12. June 29, 2005 at 9:16 pm

    I think it’s rather funny, and a nice cautionary tale for men who think it’s really important that a wife take their names. If you’re that set on it, how will you feel if she keeps it after a divorce, when she’s not “yours” anymore? Ha.

    Of course, I did take my husband’s name, but for purely aesthetic reasons–I just liked it better. He offered to take mine instead, or to combine our names, but I really don’t like hyphenation, and the combinations sounded awful. God forbid we divorced, but if we did, I’d probably keep it, especially since most of my professional work was done with it.

  13. June 29, 2005 at 9:19 pm

    Two things:

    First, I don’t think we should jump to the conclusion that the man is the jerk here. There are many things this man’s partner might have done to him that would make him want to more drastically sever the social bonds between them.

    Second, most women I know who changed their name did so because they wanted a “family” name–to share with their partner and children. If this ex-couple has children, it seems very unfair for the man to ask his wife to give up the named connection she has with her/their children.

  14. June 29, 2005 at 9:37 pm

    I can add an interesting twist to this discussion. I kept my name and my husband kept his. However, we adopted two older children and we allowed them to choose their own last names when we finalized the adoption. One daughter chose my husband’s last name, the other daughter chose both our last names with no hyphen. The choices our daughters made suited their personalities: one is more traditional, one is a rebel and loves insisting on the erasing that pesky hyphen!

    I don’t think this fellow is a jerk. It’s simply not his decision. And I’m grateful that society is much more accepting these days of multiple family names.

  15. mythago
    June 29, 2005 at 10:08 pm

    I don’t know if he’s a jerk in general, but actually asking her to change her name would indeed be jerky. He’d be treating his last name as a sort of honorary title to bestow on the wife (whose own name doesn’t matter), which can be withdrawn once she ceased to perform the functions associated with the title.

  16. June 29, 2005 at 10:17 pm

    I can’t imagine a woman wanting to keep the name of a man whom she has divorced, although one of my best friends did just that. Of course, I still have trouble figuring out why women take their husbands’ names. If a woman divorces a man whose name she has taken and she took his name of her own free will and he asks her not to keep it, I think it is wrong of her to keep it. If, as some have suggested, he pressured her to take his name, then he can live with the consequences.

    But why would you marry a man who pressures you to take his name?

  17. June 30, 2005 at 1:29 am

    You can’t imagine a woman wanting to keep the name of a man she’s divorced (or who has divorced her – sometimes it happens that way around)? Why? She might now share that name with children (seven children, in my mother’s case). She might have built up a whole professional career with that name, and have publications in peer reviewed journals that would be less obviously associated with her if she changed her name back. She might have had that name for decades. I think she has every right to keep the name, regardless of whose decision it was that she take it.

  18. Dunc
    June 30, 2005 at 8:08 am

    It probably completely irrelevant in this context, but there are social contexts where it might make some sense.

    For examlpe, I’m a Scot. My surname (inherited from my father) is King. King is one of the core “septs” of Clan Gregor. My name is a direct link into over a thousand years of history, and I feel that history is part of my identity.

    If my mother had retained her married name after they divorced (she didn’t), and then had another child by someone else (she hasn’t), then if that child had taken the surname “King” it would imply a clan relationship where none actually existed. While the bonds of clan aren’t anything like what they used to be, they do still count for something, at least to some people.

    Like I say, probably irrelevant in this context…

  19. June 30, 2005 at 8:27 am

    I’ll take a man’s name if I marry someone named _______ the Impaler. Anything less is too much trouble.

  20. Mnemosyne
    June 30, 2005 at 11:02 pm

    One of my aunts was widowed after 30 years of marriage, got re-married and changed her name, got divorced, and changed her name back to her original married name. Made sense to me — she’d hadn’t been known by her maiden name for something like 40 years at that point.

    I do sometimes think it must be weird to be Chris Sarandon, though — not only does your ex-wife keep your name after you divorce, she then becomes a bigger movie star than you.

    You’ve gotta admit, “Susan Sarandon” is a much better movie star name than “Susan Tomalin.”

  21. July 1, 2005 at 12:35 am

    My mother kept her married name, despite a very bitter divorce. She also kept the title of “Mrs.”. I think she didn’t like her maiden name, and she also didn’t want to advertize that she was “available” to other men. She never married again, and has a long time female companion. Both my sisters took their husbands’ names, though the sister who married twice kept her first husband’s name professionally, her second husband’s name personally, because her second husband is hispanic and there are political issues at her work where that matters.

    In California you can change your name whenever you like to whatever you want, so long as you don’t intend to commit fraud. One of these days I may change my name, provided the political situation in the US does not deteriorate…

  22. July 1, 2005 at 9:03 am

    I would think that just as after a breakup, I wouldn’t want to be associated with the guy, that after a divorce, especially a messy one, I wouldn’t want to keep the name. To me, taking a name in marriage makes you a “unit” with that person, and divorce means the end of that unit. But like anything dealing with names, it’s a personal choice.

    My grandmother was widowed, kept the married name, then married again and divorced that guy, keeping her first married name the whole time. I think she really felt closest to her first husband.

  23. July 4, 2005 at 12:00 am

    I think the guy has a perfect right to ask, and his ex has an equally perfect right to say no if she likes.

    But then, I’m coming at the situation from a different angle. I’m currently planning my first wedding, with a man who’s been married before. There’s something a little bit uncomfortable knowing that there’s another Mrs. X running around the state (assuming that the ex hasn’t changed her name by now).

    Not that I’d ever bring it up as a talking point with him – he had no control over what name she chose to keep after the divorce, and I don’t think it would have occurred to him to ask. He still hasn’t retrieved the last few books and cds that were left behind when he moved out… is there a informal statute of limitations on how long you have to do that?

  24. July 4, 2005 at 9:36 am

    Maybe she should just choose a name that suits her, instead. Something uniquely her, not Dad’s name or husband’s name. I won’t change my surname when I marry, but I have considered changing my last name by deed poll.

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