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When Two (Names) Become One

More and more couples are opting to ‘mesh’ their last names when they marry, but the decision can create headaches

When Arthur Sipe and Mel Gold got hitched in Tennessee in 1996, they knew they wanted to have the same surname, they just didn’t want his. “I think we both thought it was pretty weird to expect just one of us to change their name,” Arthur, a 41-year-old software engineer tells me by phone from Boston. “That didn’t seem quite fair, so we explored options.”

Then, Mel suggested he could just take her name. After all, Gold is hard to misspell, and people were always having trouble with Sipe. “Ultimately, I was a little sad about losing that connection with my family, though,” he says, so he said no. They thought about combining their names via a new anagram off the originals, but Soligpeg and Dogpiles didn’t seem so grand. They thought about hyphenating Gold-Sipe or Sipe-Gold, but Goldsipe seemed to roll off the tongue better.

“When we realized that Goldsipe was still a reasonably short name and sounded reasonably good together without the hyphen, it seemed like a good choice,” he said. But that was only the beginning of their journey. Mashing your name together to make a new surname is called meshing, and thought it’s unclear how many people do it, tales of doing it always come hand in hand with frustration from one direction or another, whether attitudes or logistical nightmares.

There are a handful of surname scenarios when a couple makes it legal to choose from — keep both your names (logistically easiest), take his name (easiest for him, society, hotel reservations), hyphenate (great for about one generation), take her name (some people do!), or make a brand-new one (tricky). History instructed women to take their husbands’ names, and even through decades of progress freeing them from doing so, many still do—and at least some research indicates half of all Americans think they should still have to. It’s complicated, regardless, bringing up issues of identity, family, gender and logistics. And many people feel that having the same name helps them feel like a family unit when they get married.

About 20 percent of women keep their maiden names these days, while 10 percent hyphenate or legally take their husband’s name but use their maiden name professionally. But it’s difficult to gauge how many people toss out their old name in exchange for a new meshed hybrid. What’s clearer is that alongside every story of meshing is a story of how irritated the couple’s family and friends were that they did it, or what a general pain in the ass it is to do.

In 2006, Jodi Wilgoren and Gary Ruderman became the Rudorens, and a friend said it was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. Bryn née Hunt and her husband, former surname Palmer, became the Huntpalmers because they thought it was progressive and rebellious. In a piece about the decision, Huntpalmer wrote that the two received received hurt, bewildered and mocking reactions from friends and family. Her mother-in-law wondered why she couldn’t just keep her name if she needed to be so progressive. A friend suggested her husband had “sacrificed his manhood” to their marriage.

But the practice long predates the Rudorens and the Huntpalmers. In 1988, for example, Tony Villar married Corina Raigosa and they became the Villaraigosas. His reasoning: Why keep the name of a father who had abandoned his family? The Villaraigosas divorced after two decades, but he kept the name — perhaps because by then he was mayor of Los Angeles.

Antonio Villaraigosa takes his oath of office. Via Achievement.org

And escaping a name that carries unwanted weight isn’t the only reason for doing it. Many people think it’s the most equal, not to mention romantic, option. In 2012, the Daily Mail reported on the growing trend of surname-meshing among British couples, finding that about 800 newlyweds had decided to make a brand new last name rather than hyphenate or go traditional. Claudia Duncan, an officer with the U.K.’s Deed Poll Service, which couples use to request a name change, said the practice was no longer a novelty but now the main reason citizens used the service.

“It allows couples the freedom of reinvention — meshing their names as a symbolic reflection of their union with a completely new start without any history being tied to their surname,” she said.

For the Goldsipes, even in the South, there was surprisingly little blowblack from friends or family about their choice to mesh. (Family and friends were probably happier they’d opted not to go with their first choice for a new surname, “Destiny,” which they believed was super romantic — at age 19.)

The trouble was just trying to make it stick legally. The first place they had to talk about their surname was the local Social Security office. “They told us at that time that unless we went to court to legally change our names, our only options were to keep our names, hyphenate or take the spouse’s name,” Arthur said. “It sounded like I could take her name if I wanted, but the closest we could get at that time was to hyphenate, so that is was we chose there. I remember leaving that office being sad and disappointed.”

The DMV complicated matters even more. “They had no problem accepting that Mel was going to hyphenate her name, but they said a man couldn’t change his name without a court order, so they refused to accept the paperwork from the Social Security office that day. She got a new driver’s license, but I left not knowing the status of my name. However, they refused to put the hyphenated name on her license, saying it caused too much confusion to look it up in their records, so they put Gold as her middle name and Sipe as her surname. How is that any different than the tradition we were trying to avoid?”

The next day, back at the Social Security office, a lawyer on site took sympathy on them and went with them to the DMV to explain that they had to accept his hyphenated name. They did, but they still wouldn’t hyphenate it because of the records-search issue. Now, it appeared that both Arthur and Mel had the middle name Gold and the surname Sipe. For three more years they lived that way, but eventually a lawyer they knew — as a belated wedding gift before they relocated to Boston — took them pro bono through the court proceedings to get the legal name change. They’ve been the Goldsipes of Boston ever since.

They now probably seem like any couple who’ve chosen to stick with the man’s name, even as their mesh hides a progressive bent and years of bureaucratic headaches. When people ask about what sort of name Goldsipe is, they generally react positively to the meshing. The two don’t plan on having any kids, so what happens to the family tree isn’t much of an issue, though Arthur does concede the Sipes’ days in history may be numbered.

“Yeah, I’m a little sad about the Sipe tree,” he said. “I had one other Sipe cousin, a first cousin who had kids, all girls. If they stick with tradition, Sipe is coming to an end. So maybe there’s a little sadness about that. But hey, this has been happening to women throughout history. I think we have a lot more concerns about passing on just being good people. Other things seem more important than some name.”