How To Politely Decline a Wedding Invitation

Photo: Getty Images/Evgeny Tchebotarev
First off, no need for RSVP guilt. We’re still very much in the midst of a global health crisis. With both multiple variants of the COVID-19 and vaccine hesitancy rampant, it's a tall ask to expect 150 people to gather in a ballroom, serve them buffet style, and make them dance to "I Gotta Feeling."

But let's say it's an intimate gathering and everyone else invited is game. You can’t understand why you’re the only outlier, and you feel broken up about it. What should you do? How do you politely decline a wedding invitation (for any reason)?

Possible (and Plausible) Reasons You're Feeling Uncomfortable RSVPing 'Yes' To a Wedding

There could be a cocktail of reasons behind discomfort, but psychologically speaking, it’s likely dependent on your level of comfort with conflict... or lack thereof.

Experts In This Article

When considering whether or not to attend a wedding while COVID-19 rages on, things you might want to take into consideration are the specific measures the soon-to-be newlyweds are taking to protect their guests. Is the wedding indoors or outdoors? How many guests are attending? Are all wedding guests required to be vaccinated? Are masks required? By weighing the responses to these questions, you’ll be better able to make the right choice for you. That said, if you choose to RSVP that you can’t make it, you may feel a certain level of guilt for doing so. Clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, encourages us all not to, though.

"Your conflict avoidance is often driven by your fear of losing important relationships," she says. "Your bandwidth for handling stress right now is also going to be a factor. When it's low, it will depend on whether you think that going to this wedding will help restore you or just drain you even more."

Generally speaking, a low risk tolerance can skip hand-in-hand with uncertainty anxiety, which can be elevated by fear of the unknown. This is why risk tolerance also plays a big role in this decision-making process, according to Dr. Daramus. It’s why if you’re still on the fence about attending a wedding, knowing full details about the attendees, protocols, and so on might make you feel safer about showing up but that comes with a caveat.

"Uncertainty and ambiguity usually make people less likely to take risks, so if you’re going into a room full of people when you don’t know their exposure to COVID, that’s going to shape how much risk you can handle," says Dr. Daramus. "Information makes us more risk-tolerant because it gives us a sense of certainty, but the problem is that it doesn’t matter if the information is correct or not; if it makes you feel safer, you’re likely to take more risks."

So, while knowledge is power, don't just take everything you're told at face value. Your friends telling you it's safe because of XYZ protocols in place is not the same as science. As such, Dr. Daramus recommends cross-referencing that intel with the latest best practices of reliable medical sources, and if you feel comfortable reading research articles, Google Scholar is great.

"You should also be aware of what you’re afraid of and what you want to hear the most, so you know the difference between your emotions and the actual information," she says. "Although it’s hard, try not to let politics or your friends’ choices affect your health decisions—unless your friends are experts on viruses or risk management—because a virus isn’t a popularity contest."

A Sample Script for What To Say When You Can't Attend a Wedding

Let’s say there’s no way you can RSVP yes, and now you’re looking for an out. While we’re giving ourselves grace and understanding for bailing on a wedding, we also want to give the happy couple a heads up ASAP. "Don’t put the conversation off until later," says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. "As soon as you receive the invitation, send back the RSVP card and consider making a personal phone call if you are close friends. A RSVP decline is all that’s necessary if you don't have a close, familial relationship."

Need an example script? Gottsman recommends something like this:

"I wanted to contact you in person and thank you for the invitation. Unfortunately, I'm still not comfortable traveling or being in crowds of any kind at this moment. I appreciate your understanding and want you to know we are wishing you the very best of luck and will celebrate as soon as the pandemic comes to an end.'"

Emily Forrest, the Director of Communications for Zola, recommends this:

"Congratulations, I am so thrilled for you both! I wish I could be there on your big day, but unfortunately I won't be able to attend. I would love to get together for [dinner/drinks/etc.] to celebrate with you both after the honeymoon!”

You can adjust the language based on how close you are to the intended recipient, and depending on the person, yeah, there might be some grumbling. But the delivery itself really doesn’t have to extend past three sentences.

What To Do After RSVPing 'No' to a Wedding

As far as next steps go, you still want to show your support and congratulations in a way you feel comfortable with. Getting something from their registry or a gift basket could work if they skipped on the Zola account. Money is also always good, but it’s a pandemic, so you do what’s right for you.

It's heart-wrenching that we can’t party with our friends and family like we used to, even if we know that a day will come for those big reunions eventually. But if you can make your loved ones feel celebrated in the meantime, they'll be less concerned about the headcount.

What Not To Do if You Don’t Want to Attend a Wedding Because of Covid-19

Say you decide not to attend an upcoming wedding because of Covid-19. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you claim that your reason is due to the pandemic, make sure that your other lifestyle choices align with that perspective. After all, you don’t want to tell your loved one that you’re not comfortable partying amongst a crowd of people at their reception if you’re then going to spend the weekend dancing the night away at your favorite bar.

Another thing you shouldn’t do? Don’t feel the need to over-explain your reasoning for why you can’t make it. Living during these unprecedented times—and even before and beyond them—simply saying that you can’t make it because you’re uncomfortable with the situation should suffice.

More Wedding Invitation Etiquette FAQs

How much should you spend on a wedding gift if you don’t attend?

If you are personally close with the couple, it’s good etiquette to send a gift—even if you can’t attend, Forrest says. “You do not necessarily need to spend $100 on the gift (which is the average amount that most guests spend), but you can send them something small and sentimental that will be meaningful to them,” she adds. “It is the thought that counts and not the dollar amount.” Not in a financial spot to buy a gift, she recommends sending a hand-written note. “A personal note goes a long way, as does quality time spent or a supportive message,” she assures us.

Can I decline if I already accepted a wedding invitation?

If you’ve already RSVP'd yes and change your mind, the same rule applies. Let your loved one know immediately (like, right now) that you can’t attend, and ideally get on the phone. No need to belabor the conversation—Gottsman says to keep it short, sweet, and polite.

That said, Forrest says that reversing your RSVP should really only be for unforeseen circumstances. “Most wedding invites are sent out about two to three months in advance so that the couple can get a headcount that they will supply to their venue and to their other vendors like their caterer and their florists,” she explains. “The cost of the wedding is also based on guest count.” That said, she acknowledges that things happen. “If you're absolutely not able to attend a wedding after you've accepted it, such as because you are sick and your attendance might cause others to also become sick, or because you have another very urgent personal emergency, call the couple personally to let them know that you aren't going to be making it so they can rearrange their seating assignments and alert their vendors. Even if you feel the conversation may be hard, let the couple know and do not just ghost them on their wedding day.”

Are there any good reasons to decline a wedding party invitation?

Absolutely! Being part of a wedding party is a commitment. If you feel like you don’t have the mental or physical energy, or the time or funds to devote to the process, it’s best to be upfront with the couple.

“Let the couple know that you are honored by the ask, but that you don't want for your situation to attend or afford events to restrict any of the vision that they have for their wedding journey, and that you will still be so happy to join them for their wedding and support them in other ways,” Forrest says. “You can even offer up specific ways in which you're able to support and celebrate, such as by inviting them over for a more intimate celebration dinner, or by checking off a planning task like helping to research hotel room blocks or Airbnbs.”

Not sure what to say? Forrest suggests this: "I am so excited for you and touched that you asked me to stand beside you! I would love to support you however I can, but I don't think I am able to perform the role to its full extent, and I would love to celebrate as a guest and support you in any other way that I can, such as by doing X task”.

Wish you knew how to decline more invitations in your life? Learn how to politely decline a virtual date, next.

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