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Why does a woman customarily take the name of her husband at marriage?

Why does a woman customarily take the name of her husband at marriage?

Last time, I spoke about the importance of names. Specifically, the names we give our children. Today, I would like to speak about the importance of the names we give and receive within marriage. For, these names have become like so much of the wisdom we have received from our forefathers: we merely remember that we do it, but we have forgotten why.

It seems to be a near universal practice that we give and receive names when someone is undergoing a significant change or accomplishment in their life. In the Native American tradition, a new name may be earned to more fully reflect the story of the one who bears it. Fighter pilots are given a callsign. Monarchs choose regnal names.

For Christians, a child is Christened with their new name at baptism. When this child reaches an age of spiritual maturity, they choose for themselves a Confirmation name—thus declaring to all the world who they intend to emulate. Throughout salvation history, God Himself gave new names to certain people to indicate to them—and us— their new role, e.g., Abraham, Sarah, Peter. Monks, nuns, and popes take on new names as they begin their new vocation.

And then there is a woman’s married name.

This name is radically different from every other name we give and receive. Names are meant to tell us who the person is, and who they are meant to be. Baptismal and Confirmation names, for example, refer to the saint to be emulated, but they do not indicate a kind of absolute identification with the saint. Not so with a woman’s married name.

Something different is happening here.

Why doesn’t a woman choose a name to call herself when she gets married, similar to when she is Confirmed or becomes a nun?

Because she has already chosen her name. She has chosen her husband.

She has chosen to be one flesh with him, and in doing so, she has boldly proclaimed: “My name tells you who I am. I am his, and he is mine. No other name under heaven can more perfectly tell you who I am than his name. For any other name would not be his—I would not be his. To have separate names is to tell us who and what we are is not one. As we are one in flesh, so we must be one in name.”

To name anything, dear reader, is to separate it from what it is not. It was only fitting, then, that my wife became Mrs. Timothy Clark—because any other name would separate us and lend credence to the great lie that we were not one, but two. “But from the beginning it was not so.”

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Asking Yvonne Miller to become Mrs. Timothy Clark

Husbands, this is meant to be our great challenge—and our great honor. Your wife is inseparable from you. So inseparable, that she has freely accepted your very name to be her own. One day, long ago, or perhaps only a few months ago, you were on one knee before your bride, offering her your name as a gift. When she accepted, you became responsible for ensuring that your name lived up to her, and not the other way around.

Oscar Wilde once opined that, “If we men married the women we deserved, we should have a very bad time of it.” That is the great challenge.

One day, I hope to be a husband whose name lives up to the woman who accepted it. And yet, for all my faults, she bears this name with love. That is my great honor. This is the great honor of all husbands. Therefore, husbands, let us never forget that once, and even now, a woman loved us so deeply that she took our very name to herself, because she could not bear to be known by any but ours.

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