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updated 4/23/2008 5:09:16 PM ET 2008-04-23T21:09:16

Q. I am engaged to a wonderful woman who I love very much. She retained the last name of her former husband. She said she did this for the sake of the children, who are now adults. She has kept this name for many years and this is the name all her friends and colleagues know her by.

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She does NOT want to change her name to mine when we get married. I am hurt by this and cannot understand why she would want to keep HIS last name. She also refuses to hyphenate our names, as it would be “too much trouble.” Am I overreacting?

A. Possibly. It depends on why your future wife wants to keep her name and what the source of your disagreement really is. It might have little to do with the name.

Traditionally, a married woman took her husband’s name to show she belonged to and identified with her husband. To some extent, wives were like possessions. In more recent and enlightened decades, people change their names to symbolize their familial bonds.

Many women keep their name, however. They like their name, they have professional reasons to keep it, or they are used to it and it feels like theirs. Whether or not she changes her name has nothing to do with the quality of the partnership.

If a woman was married in the past, she may easily have adapted to her former husband’s name, which for many years has been “hers.”

It's important to consider children when it comes to this issue. Children like to feel a sense of unity, so it helps for everyone in the family to have the same name. But that argument doesn’t hold in this case, because these are not young children.

The issue is what one partner is willing to sacrifice or change for the other. It seems that you feel your future wife’s name shows an attachment to somebody else, or that she isn’t willing to give things up for you.

You might or might not have a point. If this is your only source of conflict, I am not sure it is significant. In that case, a name is just a name.

It’s unclear whether the name issue is more important to one of you than the other, in which case it makes sense that the one to whom it matters less make the concession.

But if there is a pattern of unwillingness for either of you to make compromises or accommodations for the other, there may be some other tension in your relationship that this particular issue represents.

Are you two in accord about important goals? Is your future wife willing to negotiate about things that matter? Are you?

If you are very traditional, will this cause conflict in other areas? For example, do you expect a traditional household where your wife does the cooking and cleaning, makes Thanksgiving dinner, irons your shirts, etc.? Is she on board with this? Or is the name issue her way of saying, 'I don't want a traditional setup; I am a progressive woman'?

One challenge for later-in-life marriages is the question of identity. If you have been set in your ways and know who you are, changing your name can be difficult.

Maybe this is her expression of that difficulty. Maybe she is afraid to lose her independence. Maybe she is making a purely practical decision, since a name change is disruptive. Maybe she likes the name because it is easy to pronounce or spell and yours is not.

So you two need to have a conversation, not about the name, but about what a name change, or lack of one, means. Find out her reasons for keeping the name without jumping immediately to the bottom-line question of whether she will or won’t change it.

It’s fine to ask if her wish to keep the name has anything to do with attachment to her former husband. If she is widowed, that can matter. If you marry a widow, it’s unfair to ask her to cross her former husband completely out of her heart, and that attachment need not harm your own marriage.

If she is divorced and her husband is still around, she might still be harboring feelings toward him. Are you worried about this or threatened by it? It is worth finding out.

Chances are, however, that her stance is merely because of the longstanding existence of her name. Compared to many other issues, it may just not be that important.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Changing names does not define a good marriage any more than an expensive ring or fancy wedding gown does.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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