How to Respectfully Decline a Wedding Invitation

Modern Etiquette

It seems like just yesterday: I was in my early twenties, and the first few friend weddings began to trickle in, just one or so per year at first — events of such festivity and distinction that I couldn’t imagine ever declining one in the future. Frankly, I rolled my eyes a bit at others who, just a few years older, complained of their packed wedding schedules each summer.

And then it happened. Seemingly overnight, everyone in my Instagram feed was engaged — and the save-the-dates began their euphoric and merciless onslaught.

The fact is: there is just no way you can make every wedding. Putting aside for a moment the often immense financial burden, the vacation allowance at your work, responsibilities back at home, and scheduling conflicts (often with other weddings) will likely curtail your ability to attend some of them.

Remember: all of these are valid reasons to RSVP “no,” as is the simple (yet brutal) reality that you might just not want to go. Wedding fatigue? It’s real.

But communicating this can be tough — precisely because we’ve culturally invested so much in the symbolic import of a single day, the grand collision of a couple’s disparate communities and loved ones. Choosing not to attend can feel like you’re rejecting or de-prioritizing your relationship to the couple.

But if you communicate with honesty, sincerity, and grace — you should be able to make it through wedding season without ruffling any feathers, allowing you to preserve your energy for the weddings you’re willing and able to attend. Below, you’ll find our tips for politely declining a wedding invitation.

Know your reasons for declining (and how negotiable they are)

Before saying anything, you should clarify for yourself why you can’t or don’t wish to attend the wedding.

Is it a logistical / tactical conflict: the cost of travel and accommodations? A work conflict? Another wedding?

Or are the reasons more interior and personal: afraid of running into an ex who’s in the wedding party? Just don’t feel that close to the couple?

Clarifying your reasons for yourself is essential because it helps dictate etiquette and strategy for declining. If your reason falls within the first category, logistics, and you do really want to go, you should determine how flexible or negotiable your conflict may be.

This is useful because couples, particularly if you’re close, may offer certain concessions (if the issue is cost, they may offer to help cover accommodation —  if the issue is scheduling, they may suggest you come for just part) to convince you to come.

If you’ve determined the conflict is non-flexible and non-negotiable, these concessions are irrelevant. But it’s okay to change your mind if the couple presents you with an option that would work for you.

Consider the timing of your response

Ideally, you’ll communicate that you don’t plan to attend the wedding before the RSVP period ends. If you aren’t particularly close to the couple, you can do so using their RSVP form — it’s polite, though not necessary, to also send along a message thanking them for the invitation and wishing them well.

But inevitably, shit happens. Sometimes, you won’t realize you can’t attend a wedding until after you’ve RSVP’d yes.

The best rule of thumb: tell them as soon as you realize you can’t attend (and offer the context that you just determined or discovered the conflict). Giving them enough notice will allow them to invite another guest to take your place, minimizing the inconvenience your absence presents.

Last minute cancellations are not ideal. Once the couple has already paid for your plate and the reasonable window for inviting another guest in your place has closed, it can feel, frankly, scary to tell the couple you can no longer attend. In this scenario, your guiding virtues should be honesty and sincerity.

Plan to first communicate that you can no longer attend either in person or over the phone, then as a follow up, send a formal correspondence by post or email to whatever RSVP source they’ve provided.

What is the right thing to say?

This depends, of course, on the couple, your relationship to them, your reason for not attending, and your proximity to the big day.

As a general rule, the closer you are to them, the more honesty and clarity you owe. This is also likely to minimize fall-out: few people will be mad at a friend who comes to them, entirely upfront about financial difficulties and the efforts they’ve made to work around them. That said, you should feel empowered to only share as much information as you’re comfortable with.

Remaining firm and clear, yet keeping intimate details close to the chest, is entirely appropriate. You should apologize, of course, but you shouldn’t feel too guilty. Sometimes, it’s just not possible.

Consider alternative ways to celebrate

If you’re unable to attend the big day, there are other ways to show the couple your love and support. These can be particularly useful if you’re fearful that choosing not to attend will make them feel less close to you. Hosting them for a home cooked dinner or sending a thoughtful wedding gift in your absence can be even more meaningful than the rushed dancefloor conversation you were likely to have at the reception.

Think again about who they are and what they like — as well as what feels feasible to you. How do you express love? Lean into that sincerity, the essence of your joy for them, then share it.

The fact is: there is just no way you can make every wedding. But how do you respectfully decline an invitation? It's harder than one would think.
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