Actress Zoe Saldana and husband Marco Perego in Los Angeles on April 2. (Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
As progressive as we are today, here’s something we still don’t see that often: a man taking his wife’s last name.
But that was the decision made by actress Zoe Saldana’s husband, artist Marco Perego. “I tried to talk him out of it,” Saldana explains in InStyle’s upcoming July issue. “I told him, ‘If you use my name, you’re going to be emasculated by your community of artists, by your Latin community of men, by the world.’But Marco looks up at me and says, ‘Ah, Zoe, I don’t give a s—.’”
Indeed, because a man taking his wife’s last name is rare, it is something “that draws people’s attention,” notes Art Markman, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Any time a person does something that violates a social norm, it causes people to pay attention.”
In the 1990s, the idea of a wife keeping her own name peaked, with 23 percent of women doing so, but that number has dropped in the years since. Most women do take the name of their husbands. The alternate route for couples — adopting a wife’s name instead of a husband’s — is uncommon. Interestingly, in a 2013 poll of 1,000 American adults, less than half the respondents thought a man should even be allowed to change his surname to match his wife’s.
For some men, retaining a last name is important because it’s founded on long-established tradition. The level to which this matters to a man depends on his upbringing and where he derives self-worth, says psychologist and counselor Karla Ivanovich, PhD, LCPC.
“A man might take his wife’s name to show commitment and support, especially if she may be the primary wage earner or has the dominant role in the relationship,” Ivanovich tells Yahoo Health. “His feelings surrounding this change will depend on why he opted to take the name.”
If a husband chooses to adopt his wife’s surname, it could mean he’s “very egalitarian,” says Jennifer Jill Harman, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University, who studies intimate relationships. “He may also desire to really challenge cultural conventions,” she tells Yahoo Health. “I think, to do this, they know they may be socially sanctioned, or deal with explaining themselves to family and others frequently — but they do this willingly to change norms.”
However, if a man took his wife’s name simply because she is more successful or dominant, Ivanovich says he may “have role or esteem issues with this down the road.”
It is hard to change the thinking around age-old norms. “Older individuals may view [a man taking his wife’s last name] as emasculation, simply because it is what they know,” Ivanovich says. “In their generations, the man was the ruler of the home — as in, ‘the king of the castle.’”
Why take a man’s name? Historically, a last name has represented two things: unity and ownership, says Wendy Walsh, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at California State University. “Marriage was one way that family fortunes combined, even if that fortune was a goat and a plot of land,” Walsh tells Yahoo Health. “When a woman took a man’s name, it was to signal a bridge between families — and that the children would inherit the fortune bearing their name. Since women rarely inherited property, it was more likely that she would take his name.”
Today, power may be held and transferred through women more frequently. So if prestige and wealth are factors in whose last name is adopted, then “with women growing in economic power, we’ll see more men taking a woman’s name,” says Walsh.
Of course, traditionalists may still adhere to the old formula of strictly joining a couple or family under the male last name. But views about marriage have been changing over the past few decades, Markman says. For example, “many men would have had difficulty with their wives being the primary breadwinners in the past, but that is also something that is less problematic these days.”
Ivanovich thinks we may get to a point — especially with the younger generation — where we will not think twice about a man taking a woman’s last name: “Some 90 percent of women still take their husband’s name as a sign of solidarity and family unity,” she says. “But [younger people] are open-minded in a way no generation has been before them.”
A man may choose to buck tradition and take his wife’s last name for a whole variety of reasons, from wanting to carry on her heritage to simply liking it better than his own. We teamed up with Whisper (he free app that allows users to share their secrets anonymously) to ask husbands who took their wives’ names and wives whose husbands took their names to share their reasons for going against the grain:
For more confessions about relationships, check out Whisper.
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