In America today, many men tend to have the same hang-up about surrendering their last names, says Brian Powell, a professor of family and gender at Indiana University Bloomington who has studied attitudes toward marital name changes: They worry they’ll be seen as less of a man. And it seems they’re probably right. In a forthcoming study, Kristin Kelley, a doctoral student working with Powell, presented people with a series of hypothetical couples that had made different choices about their last name, and gauged the subjects’ reactions. She found that a woman’s keeping her last name or choosing to hyphenate changes how others view her relationship. “It increases the likelihood that others will think of the man as less dominant—as weaker in the household,” Powell says. “With any nontraditional name choice, the man’s status went down.” The social stigma a man would experience for changing his own last name at marriage, Powell told me, would likely be even greater.
Of course, the man-takes-wife’s-name solution, like hyphenation and the last-name mishmash, is imperfect. Even though it may turn gender convention on its head—a plus for some couples—nevertheless one partner is giving up his name and, in a sense, losing a slice of the person he was before he got married. It comes with other challenges too: Because so few men opt to change their name, couples who make the unconventional choice are well aware they’ll stick out, eliciting questions for as long as anyone can remember their names before marriage. Lamb told me that there was no way for her husband to “casually” take her name. It would be a big deal, no matter how hard she tried to play it down. “And I didn’t want my marriage to be a political statement,” she said.