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Wife’s Choice of Surname Influences Power in Marriage

Wife’s Choice of Surname Impacts Perception of Power in Marriage

Over the last half-century, American women have increasingly chosen to keep their maiden names. A new study suggests a wife’s choice of surnames may influence perceptions of her husband’s personality and the distribution of power in the marriage.

In a three-part study conducted in the U.S. and the U.K., Dr. Rachael Robnett of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and her coauthors concluded that men whose wives retain their own surnames after marriage are seen as submissive and less powerful in the relationship.

The study, published in Springer’s Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, is the first to examine whether perceptions of a man’s personality vary depending on whether his wife takes his name or retains her own.

“The marital surname tradition is more than just a tradition. It reflects subtle gender-role norms and ideologies that often remain unquestioned despite privileging men,” said Robnett, an assistant professor of psychology at UNLV.

Using a variety of research methods, researchers found a connection between gender-typed personality traits and perceived power dynamics.

Traditionally, instrumentality or aggressive and dominant traits are associated with higher status and power and are often ascribed to men. Expressivity or more loving and nurturing traits tend to be associated with lower status and power and are often ascribed to women.

However, findings in Robnett’s study show perceptions of these gender norms change based on a woman’s surname choices.

“Our findings indicate that people extrapolate from marital surname choices to make more general inferences about a couple’s gender-typed personality traits,” she said.

In the first study, researchers surveyed U.S. undergraduates and asked them to characterize a man whose wife retains her surname after marriage. Respondents described the man using expressive traits and commented that he was “caring,” “understanding,” “timid,” and “submissive.”

In the next study, participants in southeast England read a vignette about a fictional engaged couple and took a survey about their perceptions of the woman’s surname choices. Respondents perceived the man as higher in expressive traits and lower in instrumental traits when the woman retained her own surname.

In the final study, also conducted with U.S. undergraduates, the researchers examined whether hostile sexism, or an antagonistic attitude toward women, helps to explain individual differences in participants’ responses to questions of power in a fictional marriage.

Respondents who held firmly to traditional gender roles and can be described as hostile sexists perceived a man whose wife retained her surname as being disempowered.

“We know from prior research that people high in hostile sexism respond negatively to women who violate traditional gender roles,” Robnett said.

“Our findings show that they also apply stereotypes to nontraditional women’s husbands.”

Source: University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Wife’s Choice of Surname Impacts Perception of Power in Marriage

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Wife’s Choice of Surname Impacts Perception of Power in Marriage. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 11 Dec 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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