Who Says a Heterosexual Guy Can’t Change His Last Name at His Wedding? This Ex-Military Guy Did Just That

Who Says a Heterosexual Guy Can’t Change His Last Name at His Wedding? This Ex-Military Guy Did Just That

“Hi, I’m Sean!” I say those words all the time, usually sticking my hand out for the expected and almost requisite handshake. I may have even said it to you if we met at this year’s SAND conference in San Jose.

But when I say those words, what is it that I am really telling you? What’s in any name, really? Shakespeare suggested this idea in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet argued to Romeo, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” When she said it, she was saying to Romeo that his last name didn’t matter to her when discussing matters of true love. She was suggesting their names didn’t quantify or define the essence of their humanity, or consciousness of their character., or content of their hearts. She was saying that who and what they were in reality had nothing to do with the silly words that people used whenever they pointed their fingers at either of them, or that those same people used when they wanted to talk about the couple when they were not in the room.

So let me now turn the question around. What in your name? Do you think it represents you? Do you see any special meaning or history or legacy connected with your name, beyond the governmental and societal tracking of your activities, ideas, ownerships, and whereabouts for other people’s purposes? If we were to change your name from whatever it was yesterday to start calling you by a different name tomorrow, would it matter to you? It might. We often don’t understand how mentally connected we get to our names as an anchor which helps us define our mind’s identity.

Of course, a subset of readers of this article already know what I’m talking about when it comes to waking up one day with a different name attached to your public identity. Many women have experienced the results of legally changing their last names through marriage. Subsequently, many women already know what it means to adjust their personal moniker, and even to a certain extent, a portion of their sense of {self}. Your friends can’t search for you as easily on social media. You have to stand in lines at the DMV, the Post Office, and the Social Security Office to change your driver’s license, passport, and SSN card. You have to send in court approved name change paperwork to every entity that sends you mail or has official records on you. Most married women know this. But this process is probably pretty foreign to most the guys in this audience. That said, I’m not one of them. I’m one of the very few who have bucked cultural customs to change my last name as the male party of my heterosexual marriage bond.

Why did I do this? Am I a pushover who wanted to let my wife “wear the pants” in our relationship? Am I a pacifist who let his willingness to surrender in the face of any potential conflict make this decision? Am I an activist who wanted to make a political statement by thumbing my nose at societal norms and overreacting to support women’s equality at the sacrifice of my Man Card? Hardly. I’m actually a rather large, loud, strong-willed ex-military type who once bested an Airborne Ranger Hand-to-Hand Combat Instructor, and who usually goes directly around, over, or straight through any challenges that arise in front of him. Fear is not really in my vocabulary.

So how did I become the guy who changed his name to his wife’s name at his wedding? Well, let me now tell you that story. It all started about 15 years ago.

—-

Whitney, who was my fiancé at the time, was crying. In the 14 years I’ve known her, it was one of the two times in my life I had seen her crying in frustration as the result of my actions.  It was not a good moment.  I had actually been trying to give what I thought was going to be good news for her, but somehow I had screwed it up.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” she said, streaming tears down her face.

“What do you mean, you’ll do it?” I asked.

“I’ll change my name,” she said.

Our wedding day had been approaching, and in the weeks previous we had been discussing all our plans for the future, including the particulars about the wedding which was to be held in our beautiful back yard at our new home, and to be officiated by my sister. That particular morning we were driving out to the Humane Society to adopt another cat, and had some time to talk on the way.  So I had brought up some thoughts connected with a conversation we’d had previously where she shared that she wanted to keep her last name at our wedding.

“Regarding us having different last names,” I said, “I have a couple concerns about family unity.”  Whitney fell silent.  “While it may not matter at all when we consciously think about it, our difference in names may create some distance for us subconsciously if we hit a rough patch in the future,” I said. “Then, because we’re planning to have kids, there’s the whole identity challenge with any kids we have regarding mommy and daddy having different last names, and what their last name is gonna be? And what is it gonna be? Does it get hyphenated? And at that point all three of us have different last names? And then does that become additive to and any kids they have in the future? I mean… when does the whole hyphenation thing end down the line? Do our great grandkids wind up with four or five hyphenated last names to honor people who are dead and long gone who they never even knew? That kinda makes the whole label of identity too big of a deal, and it’s in contradiction to what we’re going to try and teach our kids about identity… not to mention the whole thing is a bit of a pain in the ass, frankly. It might cause administrative headaches down the road because of errors. Yada, yada, yada.”  (That was back in the Seinfeld days, when yada yada yada was still trending.) “Does all that make sense?” I finished.

It was at that moment that I glanced over and noticed Whitney was crying. I had been watching the road and hadn’t looked over for a bit, but she had been crying long enough to now be wiping tears from her chin. That’s when she said through her tears in a resigned tone, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

And that’s when I knew I had royally screwed up my delivery.

“What do you mean, you’ll do it?”

“I’ll change my name,” she said, looking out the front windshield from the passenger’s seat, not looking over at me. And at that moment everything became clear to me.

What was going on in my future wife’s head was that she was assuming (and understandably so looking back on what I had been saying) that I was making arguments for her not to keep her last name, and change her last name to mine at the wedding, or maybe change both our names to a hyphenated name. Previous to that conversation, Whitney had voiced that she had wanted to keep her last name at the wedding because she liked it. She didn’t like the thought of changing it, or even hyphenating it, because she liked the way it rolled off people’s tongues. Whitney Webb. It was a nice name. A memorable name. A fitting name. She said she liked the way it sounded, and that a lot of people knew her by that name professionally. She didn’t see any good reason to change it.

Honestly, I agreed with her logic, and respected her position. I didn’t have an issue with her not changing her name at the wedding. If she liked Whitney Webb, great! No problem. Keeping her last name wasn’t the issue I was having in thinking about questions of self identity for any children we would have. That was a different issue altogether. And being the focused and pragmatic guy I was, wanting to offer a proactive solution to any relationship challenge I had identified, what I was trying to clumsily tell her through voicing my concerns about making things less complicated with names, was that in fact, since I was the one with concerns about the future kids, grandkids, and legal errors, etc., that I had come to the conclusion I could change my last name to Webb (with her blessing, of course) at our wedding.

So through her tears, when I explained this to her, it changed her perception dramatically. Now… if you didn’t already know, perception is fully one half of the variables used by the Equation of Emotion in our minds. The Equation of Emotion is a simplification of how our nervous system works, but it’s also the basis for all our emotional responses to any life situation. Thus when our perception changes about something, our emotional output changes about that same something. And this was one of those moments for Whitney. She started crying again.

“You’re crying again,” I said.

But this time it was happy tears.

—-

Now… when I tell this story, it’s at this point that many people hiccup mentally. Especially most guys. If I hadn’t warned of what’s coming like I did in the opening paragraphs of this article, it’s right about now that many people (men and women) both quietly ask, “Did he just say he changed his last name to his wife’s at his wedding?” And the answer to that question is “Yes, yes I did.” On my wedding day I signed the paperwork finalizing the decision, and the court approved that paperwork. Frankly, I think it was dumb luck that we lived in a state that allowed for the male to even change his name with marriage. In 2003, we lived in Georgia, a very southern and politically red state that had not yet legalized gay marriage, after which male name changes are now becoming more common. The ladies at the marriage license registration desk even openly laughed at me and rolled their eyes when I filled out the box for the new name on my side of the paperwork to matching my fiancé’s name on hers. They thought I was some dumbass redneck who had made a mistake, and they gave us another sheet to fill out. Personally, knowing how conservative the state of Georgia is, having lived there for over a decade just down the street from Newt Gingrich, you’d have a hard time convincing me it wasn’t simply an oversight by the males of the Georgia State Legislature to allow Georgia be only one of six states in the union (at the time) which allowed the man to change his name to his wife’s if he wished. The fact was that, in 2003, the man changing his name at the wedding was illegal to do in 44 out of 50 states. If we had lived in any but the perfect six, my good intentioned idea would have been sabotaged from the start.

But it wasn’t sabotaged, the name change went through, and if the Republican controlled Georgia State Legislature did intentionally make a decision to allow a man to change his name at the time of marriage, I do apologize for my incorrect assumption, and laud them for their progressive thinking. Unfortunately, if they were indeed that progressive, I wish it would have rubbed off on some of my family, some of my friends, some of my business contacts, and even the bank which held the mortgage on our home.

When I made the decision to change my name as the male in a heterosexual marriage, I didn’t make that decision lightly or on a whim. It was a decision that took careful thought and a lot of reflection, and was based on the real world complications this new fangled gender-equality thing is introducing into all our family situations.

I wasn’t looking to set a trend, nor to take away anything away from the men and women who followed tradition and kept the man’s last name during their heterosexual marital union. If you did that, good for you. If you kept your same last names at your wedding. Good for you. If you decided to both hyphenate, good for you. If you decided never to get married and simply stay with your same partner for life without the paperwork, good for you. The situation my wife and I faced was simply unique to us, and our solution worked (and still works) for us, which I think is all that matters. At the time of the decision, I simply figured that since whatever name label I have doesn’t really define me, my sense of {self} was probably strong enough that I could remain confident in who and what I am regardless of what name people want to call me. Call me “Snuffeluppagus” for all I care. It won’t change the content of my character or my behavior toward other folks, and whatever name you give me won’t cause me any suffering in the least.

That said, to be quite candid, my decision to change my name to my wife’s name at the wedding did have a bit of negative fallout for which I was not expecting to experience. In fact, the decision has lost me a large number of friends. Not in the, “I’m not going to be friends with you anymore” way, but more in the “yeah, you did something I don’t quite know how to process, so I’m probably not going to talk to you anymore because what you did makes me feel weird” way. Those people just sort of politely faded into the shadows. It also lost me some valued business contacts, probably for the same reason. Where before, I was one of the top execs in the game, with a sharp technical mind capable of solving most any problem you brought to me, now I’ve become “that guy who changed his name at his wedding – what’s up with that?” Sadly, there are even some people in my immediate family who won’t talk to me anymore because of the decision I made to change my last name. I’m sorry to see them go, but that’s their issue, not mine. Hugs, bro, and nephews, and cousins!

The most surprising ramification of being the guy who changed my name however, which actually puts a somewhat humorous denouement on the end of the story, came from a most unexpected place.  Beyond a few of my business associates, a few friends, and a few family members not being able to process my decision without difficulty, it turned out our mortgage company wasn’t too fond of the idea either.  Or at least one person at the mortgage company had issues with it.

When it came to interfacing with the bank which held title to our home in Georgia, I actually had to have two separate discussions with the top supervisor at our household name mortgage bank before that supervisor finally outright refused to change our names to my wife’s last name on the mortgage paperwork, even though I had provided the legal stamped court documents with the raised seal proving it was a done deal. She simply outright refused to process the court approved name change. Here’s how that went down:

My wife and I got married in September of 2003.  It was a beautiful ceremony in our lush back yarding the suburbs of Atlanta when the trees had just started to change color. We had a harpist in the corner of the yard providing the music. It was lovely and everyone had a great time. We had the reception at Dave and Buster’s, which did a great job on the catering and their game token package for everyone who came.

A couple days after the ceremony went down, and all the traveling guests had gone back home, we sent all the name change paperwork around to the various places, and I got a new License, Social Security Card, and processed my Passport. We also sent an original signed copy with raised seal to the mortgage company to process the change. And when October came around, we got a new mortgage payment booklet in the mail. The strange thing was that the payment coupons had Whitney and I printed as the remitters, but with my old last name attached to her first name, not her last name attached to mine. So, figuring it was just an honest mistake, I called the mortgage company to tell them of the error.

“Someone just made a mistake,” I said to the supervisor who had been forwarded the call.  “They changed both last names to mine instead of hers.”

“You’re gonna need to send in the court paperwork again,” she said in a bit of a weird tone.  “We don’t keep it after it’s processed.”

“Okay,” I said.  “No problem.”  We had ordered multiple copies with original signatures and raised stamps just in case we needed extras. I sent another physical copy of the stamped, signed, and raised seal paperwork via registered post to the lady at the (major brand name) mortgage company.

The next month we got another piece of mail still with the wrong names attached. I called the mortgage company again, and again got transferred to this same top level supervisor.

“Did you get the paperwork?” I asked.

“Yes sir, I got it,” she said in an incredulous tone.

“So you’ve changed the names then?”

“No sir.”

“No?”

“No sir”. Her tone now was more matter-of-fact than anything else. I waited for her to explain further. But only silence came from the other end of the line. It was clear she wasn’t going to say anything else.

“Okay…” I said slowly. “Are you going to change the names?” I didn’t understand what the exact issue was with the delay on the name change, but at this moment I had a real concern about it, because if my wife and I ever needed to sell the house, we kinda needed all the names to match our state issued identification cards for any legal transfer of the property to occur, and for us to get our money.

She paused before answering. It was a long pause. “No, sir.”

“I’m sorry, did you say ‘no’?” I asked in disbelief. I was a little stunned. Had this lady just told me she wasn’t going to process a court ordered name change? “But… I sent you the legal documents showing the name change occurred, right?”

“Yes, sir,” she said with no hesitation.

“And you guys do process name changes all the time, because I’m guessing this marriage thing happens all the time, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So why can’t our name change be processed correctly on this one?”

She paused. And this one was a long pause. Finally, she said, “Because you’re the man, sir.”

Now… stepping out of our story for a second, this single moment of my life was the moment I most wished I’d had an audio recorder going on this phone call. Because not only was I having the most surreal conversation of my 30-some years on this planet, the fact was that my MORTGAGE COMPANY had literally just told me I was the man. She actually said, “you are the man, sir.” The only way this moment could have been even better was if she had told me, “Because you are the fucking man, sir! Booya!”  If I could have fist-bumped her over the phone, I would have.

Sorry, I digress.  ;-). Back to the real conversation. I continued my line of questioning in this surreal experience:

“I’m sorry, did you just say, ‘because I’m the man’? So what does that mean in the mortgage industry? Do men not file name change paperwork from time to time. Did you guys do Prince’s mortgage?”

And I’ll remember this forever… because she delivered this next line like she’d said it hundreds of time to every other caller she talked to on a daily basis for years. “We don’t change the man’s name with weddings, we change the woman’s name.”

What?

I was floored.

What?

Was there some federal guideline or mortgage company policy I hadn’t heard about that was about to ruin my new house’s paperwork? But wait a second. There’s no policy they can have that supersedes a court order. I had a judge’s signature and raised seal on my name change. That’s a legal document. I had even used it to get a new driver’s license, and if there was one place on Earth that made having every bit of paperwork in order, it was the DMV. And I had passed that test. I had a DL with Sean Webb printed right on it. So I tried again.

“But wait. You have a court document signed by a judge, with a raised state seal telling you my name has legally changed, right?”

She finally lost her patience with me, and lost her cordiality.

“I’m not doing it,” she said aggressively.

I couldn’t believe my ears. “I’m sorry?” Why I’m apologizing here, I have no idea, but I did.

“I’m not going to change your name, sir. Is there anything else I can do for you?” She sounded like she wanted to end the call right there.

Wow. We had certainly entered the Twilight Zone here. I was standing in the amazing kitchen of a beautiful home that Whitney and I both loved in the outskirts of Atlanta, with the trees now in full color transformation outside the window, incense smoke wafting from the other room (creating a very pleasing sensory experience), and in that moment I’m on the phone with a Supervisor of the mortgage company who was telling me that with my new legal identity I no longer officially own that home, and she wasn’t going to fix it. What. The. Fuck?

Well, I certainly couldn’t take no for an answer on this. The ownership of my house was at stake, and this lady was in my way of getting the paperwork straight, and in the process, potentially taking away hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from me down the road. I tried to escalate.

“Um, well then can I speak to your supervisor?” I asked.

“I’m it, sir.  There is no one above me in the department.”  She paused.  “Is there anything else?”

That sounded final. My mind tried to think quickly. So I don’t actually own this home at this moment, and she’s not going to change that, I thought. That’s a big problem. But… wait a second… that knife actually cuts both ways. So I decided to take a different approach. After thinking how I was going to phrase my last ditch argument, I paused to get into the right frame of mind, becoming grateful for that moment.

“Okay, that’s cool, Ms. X” I said in a congenial tone, using her name so she knew I knew who she was. “We will stop sending in the payments, then. Thanks!” And I tried to sound genuinely grateful.

There was a brief pause on the other end of the phone. I could almost hear her mind switching gears. She was definitely moving in her chair. When she spoke, I detected a definite change of tone and a new urgency from the other end of the line.  “What do you mean you’ll stop sending in the payments?”, she asked. “You have to make the payments or we’ll foreclose on the property.”

I replied in a rather matter-of-fact tone myself this time.  “Oh, of course, I know your company will attempt to foreclose, but the mortgage paperwork, and thus the foreclosure paperwork that follows in 120 days from now will be for a Sean and Whitney [old last name]. And as far as I know, those people don’t actually exist, at least not in this house. So, best of luck getting the Sheriff to find someone by that last name to serve the foreclosure papers to, because my state issued driver’s license says Sean Webb, and shows that I live at this address. All the utilities for the house are in the new name, the tax assessment from the county is in our new names. So basically, [major national bank] will be trying to sue two people that don’t exist for half a million dollars based on contract signatures that don’t match the people who own the house. I wish them luck with that.”

I didn’t pause to give her any space for a reply, and tried to make this last part sound as genuine as possible: “So thank you, Ms. X, SO, SO MUCH for gifting us the house. It’s easily the best wedding gift we received. I gotta run. Thanks again, though!”  And then before she could even take in a breath to respond, I hung up the phone, ending the call.

The phone rang back within three seconds. I didn’t answer it. It didn’t ring again after that. Two weeks later, the new payment booklet showed up from that national bank with our proper and legal names printed on each payment stub. Mission accomplished.

—-

In closing, sometimes change is hard. But other times it can also be very liberating.

I recently published a book called Mind Hacking Happiness where I explained the source of all our individual pain and suffering as a process of holding on to ideas of {self} that we do not wish to change in the face of perceptions from the world that attack those ideas of {self}. At it’s most fundamental level our brain’s main job is to defend our understanding of {self} as a survival mechanism. And in short, that is exactly how all our pain and suffering comes to be, according to the published peer reviewed science about our brains. Fortunately, this new knowledge also uncovers a new way to hack our minds into removing all that pain and suffering, increase our happiness, be less adverse to change, and make our life awesome all the time. But one thing that’s required to hack our mind and removing our pain and suffering is to understand the process our mind takes to control our actions and create our pain. Because the fact is that if you aren’t able to see that very influential mind process at work, you wind up being an unwitting slave to it.

Of course, I knew this while I was on that call, and knew exactly what pressure to apply within her mind.

In that moment of needing to move that mortgage supervisor off her attachment of mind which was telling her the man was the head of household in marriage, and thus all names were to be changed in only one gender direction, I needed to use the science of identity to get her to change her mind. I simply had to introduce a perception that her job might be in jeopardy (a larger attachment of {self}) so her mind might allow her to release its attachment to whatever was causing her to resist giving me my legally accurate documentation. In the end, she defended the biggest idea of {self} over the smaller one, and allowed my name change to go through.

Some of the most liberating moments in life come when life itself shows us we are not who or what we think we are. So did her release of that small portion of her {self} allow her some level of liberation? I hope so. I can tell you that my release of my old name, barring a few transition challenges, was certainly a liberating process for me. The day I put on a new name after years of having a different one, I was able to see first hand that our names are meaningless about defining who and what we are, and that I am whomever I decide to be with my actions when I get up each day. That was actually a very liberating discovery for me. This meant if I was accidentally an asshole yesterday, I can take actions to be a nicer guy today. If I made some mistakes yesterday, or sat on the couch all day doing nothing, I can get up and be better and change the world today, leaving yesterday behind. Changing my name reminded me each moment brings a new now that I can fill with whatever actions I wish to take to be the person I wish to be right now, and moving forward.

And that’s all true regardless of what people call me. Yes, I changed my name to my wife’s name at my wedding, and that is certainly an unconventional decision. If you want to judge that decision, and call me a pansy, or a pushover, or a rebel without a clue, knock yourself out. I hope that judgment brings you peace. But regardless of what you think of me, I’m going to greet you the same way I do everyone else when I meet you. “Hi, I’m Sean Webb.”

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