• What’s in a name?

Marriage and relationship

While this is not a common or big issue in couples counselling, it does sometimes come up. It is a fascinating subject, and largely overlooked in relation to how our modern society functions. The issue can be captured by one, or both, of these questions:

• What surname should we give our child(ren)?
• If we get married, which surname should we use?

To dig out a bit of background to these questions, I started searching on the internet (as you do!), and soon discovered that there is an enormous amount of information on the subject. And very interesting information too. I could (someone probably did) write a whole book on it. But I don’t intend to. All I want to do is to provide a bit of background, before I go into what I consider creative solutions to these questions.

About family names

Before the middle ages people in Europe didn’t really use surnames. Communities were small enough that everyone knew who everyone was, and one name was enough for each individual. As communities grew, the use of a second name started to take hold. The names people started using could for example refer to their profession (Smith, Baker), or to where they lived (Hill, Green), or perhaps to some particular personal feature of the person (Short, White), or to their father (Jackson, Stevenson).

In the Icelandic culture, a person’s last name is still today derived from the name of their father, and will be different if the person is a male or a female. For example if a man whose first name is Sigurd fathers a son, the son’s last name will be Sigurdson. If Sigurd fathers a daughter, however, her last name will be Sigurdsdottir (i.e. Sigurd’s daughter).

When people get married

The laws as well as the customs of different countries are amazingly diverse, in regards to both of the original questions above. Over the last few hundred years the tradition of most countries in Europe has been that the woman takes the man’s surname when they get married. And when they have children, the children naturally inherit that same surname.

In recent years this has been changing, and now the woman may very well keep her maiden name. The man may even take the woman’s surname, or they may both use both surnames (usually hyphenated).

If a couple are not married when they have a child, or if they are married but have kept their pre-marriage names, the child would in many countries automatically be given the father’s last name. In other countries it is the other way around; if the mother is not married, or has kept her maiden name whilst married, then the child is automatically given her last name.

Now, if two people from two different cultures get married (or not) and have child(ren), the situation can become very complex. In fact, even between people with the same cultural heritage, it can become quite difficult to reach agreement on the naming issues.

A modern solution, version #1

Here is one of the approaches that I would suggest couples to consider.

When you go into a committed relationship

Whether you get married or choose to remain in a “de facto” marriage is not the issue, really. When you arrive at the point where you recognise that this is a long-term, committed relationship, you may want to consider giving a name to your relationship. Then you both add (formally or informally) this relationship name to your existing surname, so you both have one part (the last) of your surnames in common.

Example: Mr Smith and Ms Jones get married, and give their marriage union the name Prema. They then become Mr. Smith-Prema and Ms. Jones-Prema.

When you have a child

When Mr. Smith-Prema and Ms. Jones-Prema have children, the children’s surname will be Prema only. And this makes good sense, because the children are the offspring of the relationship between the parents, not the offspring of one of the parents alone!

When you break up

Sure, no one expects to break up, but statistically that is unfortunately quite unwise. Of the couples that get as far as marrying, almost half will at some point break up. And if we take into account all the couples that never got as far as marrying, even though they felt they were in a committed, long-term relationship, the statistics get even worse. So, it may be wise to act as if it could happen – just as you do when you take out insurance on your car…

When Mr. Smith-Prema and Ms. Jones-Prema break up, they simple shed the Prema part of their names. Their children continue to have the surname Prema though, since they are still the offspring of the relationship, even after the relationship has passed.

A modern solution, version #2

The above approach has as the advantage that all members of the marriage/relationship have the same surname (at least partially); Prema. It does become a bit cumbersome though, so for couples who don’t see a need for everyone in the family to have the same name, there is another alternative. Both adults keep their surnames, whether they get married or not. Then, when they have a child, they give the child a surname that represents the parents’ relationship. This could for example be a combination of the parents’ names, since the child is essentially just that; a combination of the parents.

In fact, this is exactly how our son got his surname. My surname is Andersson, and his mother’s surname is Zillman, and we gave Erik the surname Andeman – which just so happens that it means ‘spirit man’ in Swedish!

I would be very interested in what your thoughts are on this subject. And also in how you have handled these questions in your own relationship/marriage and child naming.

  1. Pedro Altenborg

    25 February 2018 at 10:52 am

    Why have one surname when you can have both? I believe both the father and the mother should pass on their families names to their children, whether they’re married or not.

    In Brazil, for instance, it works like this:

    Mary Phillips married John Gold; if she decides to take his name, she will become Mary Phillips Gold, never taking out her own “maiden” name.
    Then she gives birth to little Peter. He will be Peter Phillips Gold. No need to hyphenate. Simple as that in my country 🙂

    1. Lars Andersson

      25 February 2018 at 5:46 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Pedro!
      Yes, there are other alternatives than the ones that I suggest, and some of them may work quite well.
      I am curious, however, about how it works in Brazil with regard to a couple of things.
      1) When John and Mary get married, will John also then have Phillips Gold as his last name? Or does only the woman add the man’s name to her maiden name? If so, why this gender inequality?
      2) What happens when Peter Phillips Gold marries Suzanna Jones Smith? Obviously, Suzanna will not then be called Suzanna Jones Smith Phillips Gold. So she will need to shed one of her last names, which will be the name of one of her parents, and hence the other of Suzanna’s parents will not be passed on to her children – will that be Suzanna’s father’s or Suzanna’s mother’s name that is lost? Maybe she has a choice there? Or perhaps this is another point where gender inequality shows up?

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