Back when Nikki Haley, the last woman standing in the race for the Republican nomination, began dating her now-husband, she took a look at him and asked him what his name was.
Puzzled, he told her it was Bill, which she already knew.
“You just don’t look like a Bill. What’s your whole name?” she replied, to which he answered, “William Michael.”
“From that point on, I started calling him Michael, and all my friends did the same,” she wrote in her 2012 memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option.”
“Before we knew it, he was universally known as Michael,” she continued. “Everyone who knew him before I did knows him as Bill, and everyone who met him after I did knows him as Michael. He looks like a Michael.”
Mr. Haley even went by that name in a South Carolina newspaper’s bridal registry announcement in 1996 ahead of the couple’s wedding. He still continues to go by Michael.
That got me thinking: What happens when you can’t see yourself dating someone with a particular name? Or if you simply don’t like your partner’s name? If Mr. Right said his name was Chad, would that be a deal-breaker? If the woman of your dreams had the same name as your mother, would you stop the pursuit or call her by another one?
The idea of “looking” more like one name than another could stem from specific memories and characteristics that people have associated with certain names: Meet enough Bills, and you’re bound to form ideas of what a Bill looks like. A strong reaction to a person’s name — and certainly one visceral enough to want to call a partner by a different name — usually comes from somewhere, said Carol Bruess, a professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a relationship social scientist.
“When a name evokes an emotional reaction, it’s usually because of a past or current relationship with someone who had that or a similar name,” she added.
According to Dr. Bruess, when we have had a traumatic or negative relationship with someone, those negative associations can be easily transferred to anyone with the same name.
“If you begin dating someone with the same name as your emotionally abusive uncle, it might take time to reorient your emotional connection to the name,” she said. “Like any symbol, we can recreate and reassign the meaning.”
One Reddit user even sought the help of strangers to learn to love his girlfriend’s name, Zelda. Her parents were apparently “huge literary geeks,” and her mother had an interest in the life of Zelda Fitzgerald.
“I love her. I just can’t get over her name,” he wrote in a post. “I call her pet names and weird nicknames all the time, because I just feel so weird calling her Zelda. It reminds me of Legend of Zelda, and I don’t like the games, and my first thought is always ‘who names their kid after a video game?’”
Another user admitted not only to disliking her partner’s name, Bradley, but confessed that she instead calls him babe “90 percent of the time.”
Opting to be known by a middle name isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Ms. Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. Although her given name is Nimarata, she goes by Nikki, which she has said is on her birth certificate. (Former President Donald J. Trump has made an issue of Ms. Haley’s name on the campaign, repeatedly flubbing her given name as a racist dog whistle.)
It’s normal for couples and families to refer to one another by nicknames or totally different names as a way to show affection, to reflect a close bond, or to pay homage to an elder or an ancestor.
In Ms. Haley’s case, she changed her husband’s name as she was still getting to know him and — at least in her recounting — did not seem to ask for his permission.
Names are at the center of people’s identity, according to the linguist Laurel Sutton, the president of the American Name Society. People change their names for a number of reasons, including a gender transition, a hard-to-spell name or a simple distaste for the one they were given. But usually, it’s their choice.
“To tell someone to change their name because of your personal preferences, that’s a big ask,” she said.
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