What Happens When You Hyphenate Your Last Name

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

When you get married, there are a lot of important decisions to make, like “Do I want a wedding cake?”, “Do I want a joint checking account?”, and “Do I want to marry this person?” (You should probably answer that last one first). One of the more difficult questions you’ll face is “Will I change my name?” There are three main options from which most women choose: Keeping their maiden name, taking their spouse’s name, or hyphenating to combine the two. You can probably tell from my byline which route I chose.

In my case, my decision to hyphenate my name with my husband’s was the result of a weird mix of careful consideration and spur-of-the-moment decision-making. Changing, not changing, and hyphenating one’s name are all completely valid options, and I thought long and hard about each one. I kept coming back to hyphenating because I loved my maiden name and wanted to keep it (and there were some professional considerations involved), but I also loved my husband’s name and the idea of changing my name to reflect my partnership with him and our new family. But even though I felt that hyphenating would suit me best in an ideal world, I kept wondering if it wouldn’t work for me on a practical level in the real one. My maiden name was fairly long, and his wasn’t much shorter, and although I liked the sound of the two together (“Rutherford-Morrison”), I kept waffling about it and wondering if I should just choose one or the other. Eventually I figured I would get through the whole wedding shebang first and then make my decision when life had quieted down.

Except that’s not what happened. When we went to get our marriage license a few days before the wedding, my soon-to-be-husband and I discovered that in our state, we were required to declare any name changes on the license, which we needed that day; if I waited until after the wedding to decide, I would have had to go through the standard (and fairly involved) court process of a legal name change if I wanted to take his name or hyphenate. Long story short, after all of my indecisive dillydallying, I had to make a quick decision right then, so I bit the bullet and put the two names together, a hyphen in the middle.

Cut to two years later, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. There are things I love about my new name, but I was right to be worried about the practical implications of having a very long (19 characters!) two-parter of a surname. If either my husband or I had had a one-syllable name, I imagine my experience would be a bit different. That said, if you’re thinking of hyphenating, these are some of the things you can expect to happen:

1. Spelling your name over the phone is a huge chore.

Again, someone who hyphenates with shorter names might have a different experience from mine, but every time someone asks me to spell my last name over the phone, I have to warn them, “OK, it’s in two parts, so bear with me,” take a deep breath, and start spelling. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s annoying, especially since most people stop when I get to the end of the first half and attempt to move on. I have to say, “Wait, go back! That was only the beginning.”

2. Computers (and humans) really struggle with the hyphen.

Some people who combine their names include a hyphen in the middle and some don’t. I have one, which means that the hyphen is actually part of my legal name. Computers (and, frankly, a lot of the people who use them) often have trouble with the hyphen and with the fact that I have a multipart name. Sometimes in computer systems the hyphen will disappear, or one of the two names will be deleted, or my long name will get turned into something like “Rutherfordmorris.” Computers and people alike often don’t know how to alphabetize my last name — am I an “R” or an “M”? Most of the time, it’s not a big deal, but when dealing with plane tickets, medical records, and other nit picky situations, it can be a huge pain in the ass.

3. For convenience, you often end up just using one name or the other, and everyone is confused (including you).

When I’m doing things that don’t require my legal name, like making dinner reservations, I’ll often just use one of my names to save time explaining the situation on the phone. But then that means that people end up being confused about what my name actually is, and there are times when I can't even remember which of my names I used. The upside is that when you get to the restaurant and have to offer multiple names to find the one under which you actually made the reservation, people assume you are a super spy struggling to keep track of her many secret identities.

4. People make assumptions about you based on your name.

There is no decision that a married woman can make about her name that won't have someone, somewhere judging her for it — if she keeps her maiden name, she must be a man-hating feminist, and if she changes her name, she must be a slave to the patriarchy, right? (Clearly, we would all be better off if we could simply stop judging people for the choices they have every right to make). It’s the same when you hyphenate, with a slight difference: When you keep only one name, a stranger doesn't immediately know whether your name is your maiden name or your spouse’s name. When you hyphenate, the hyphen makes it obvious that you’ve chosen to combine names (although, to be fair, some people have hyphenated names given to them by their parents).

When you have a hyphenated name, you can expect that people will make assumptions about who you are as a person, but their expectations will reflect their points of view more than your own. For people who are pro-name-changing, your choice to keep your maiden name may seem like a rejection of traditional values; but, for those who are against name changing, your decision to take on your spouse’s name may seem like a concession to conservative notions of femininity. As with many facets of life, the only solution is to do your own thing and not care what other people think.

5. People act like you chose your name specifically to inconvenience them.

To be fair, most people in the world don’t blink an eye at my hyphenated name, but once in a while people — especially if they have to get me to spell out my name or enter it into a computer — will act as if I chose my extra-long, punctuation-having name just to make life harder for them. (Spoiler: I did not).

6. You sound like you’re a character in Downton Abbey.

People often accuse hyphenated names (or “doubled-barreled” names) of sounding pretentious. This is probably due to an English tradition in which doubled (or even tripled) up names are a way of demonstrating one's heritage; in this tradition, for instance, an upper-class woman could marry and retain the status of her unmarried name by grafting it on to her husband’s. Similarly, if two upper-class families joined through marriage, the couple might take a combined name to signify their connections to both lineages.

I like my double-barreled name, but even I sometimes feel a little ridiculous using it, as if I should be in a period film populated by people who swan around saying things like, “What ho! I’m Nigel Pipp-Haverstock — you know, of the Sheffield Pipp-Haverstocks.” (So, basically, a P.G. Wodehouse novel).

7. You get to have both names.

I’ve written a lot about the hassle that goes along with a hyphenated name, but there is one thing I quite like about it: Every time I use it, I am reminded of my two families — the one that raised me and the new one I’ve made with my husband. Even with all the headaches the name can cause, it feels right to me to retain the name with which I grew up, but at the same time call myself something that reflects a major milestone in my life. And that’s enough to make me want to keep my name, all bulky 19 characters of it. For now, at least.

Images: Pexels; Giphy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)