In which we tackle invitation etiquette, from social units to ‘and guest’ing

Loyal reader Melissa B. writes:

I’ve recently come across a wedding etiquette issue that I didn’t even know was an issue, and I’d be curious to know your opinion(s) if you have an empty column slot.

Do you think it’s OK to extend a wedding invitation to someone and not invite their SO? Some call this the “no ring, no bring” policy — engaged and married couples (and committed same-sex couples) are automatically invited together, but everyone else is invited solo.

On a bridal message board I’ve been frequenting recently, I’ve read several posts from people who insist that inviting a friend without also inviting his/her significant other –- even if the bride and groom have never met the SO –- is incredibly rude. Others say you should allow all singles to bring a guest of their choice, be it a serious boyfriend, a new girlfriend, a platonic roommate, or someone they met at the hotel bar last night. One poster said she’d rather not be invited at all than be invited solo since that was clearly a “second-class” invitation. But other brides say that they’ve used “no ring, no bring” to shorten their guest list and think it’s a perfectly acceptable policy.

I had no idea this was so controversial! Although my boyfriend and I have been together two years and have lived together for the past six months, I’ve been invited to two weddings in the past year where the invitation was addressed just to “Melissa B.,” not to “Melissa B. & Boyfriend” or “Melissa B. & Guest.” I went to both weddings, shared a hotel room with my college girlfriends, and had a great time.

It honestly never occurred to me to be mad that my boyfriend hadn’t been invited too — he’d never met either couple, and he probably wouldn’t have gone if he had been invited (airfare is expensive and we’re both on pretty tight budgets). But now I’m realizing that there are a lot of folks who think that inviting someone alone, especially if they have a known SO, is incredibly offensive.

What’s your take? Should the boyfriends/girlfriends of guests automatically be invited, whether or not the bridal couple knows them? Should all single guests be allowed to bring a date of their choice? Or is “no ring, no bring” an OK rule of thumb if you need to keep your guest list in line?

Twistie: What we have here is a failure across several different groups to understand the concept of the Social Unit. Basically, any couple that is married, engaged, or cohabiting (gay or not) is a Social Unit. That means that, yes, your live-in boyfriend should have been invited to the weddings. How long you have lived together and whether or not the happy couple had met him make no difference.

Never teh Bride: Hell, I have friends who’ve been with their SOs forever and are staunchly opposed to the notion of cohabitation (not the mention matrimony, oddly) and I still sent all parties involved invitations. It just seemed like the nice thing to do…besides, I don’t know anyone who likes to sit alone at a wedding! But I’m also lucky in that I happen to know my friends’ SOs and their names.


Twistie: Adding ‘and guest’ to your invitation would not have properly covered the situation. You have a partner with whom you share an address. He has a name. It is the business of the happy couple to acquaint themselves with this name and address the invitation to you both. Sending you an invitation and adding ‘and guest’ to it says they don’t know whom you will choose to bring with you, which entirely ignores the fact that you are in a two-person Social Unit.

Never teh Bride: Back in my early days of cohabitation with The Beard, I personally was not offended that he’d received an invitation inviting him and a guest to the wedding of an old friend. The friend in question had trouble getting in touch with The Beard and the invitation was thus routed through a grapevine of individuals to get to him. They simply had no idea we were living together. Questions of absolutely proper etiquette aside, I personally was not offended. Why get one’s panties in a ruffle when it’s likely no offense was intended?

Twistie: Ideally, hosts should know at least the names of everyone they invite. This is why ‘and guest’ is frowned upon by Miss Manners and her ilk. Once the decision has been made to include that SO, it is up to the happy couple to learn both the name and address of that person and send an invitation to that person. Again, they are inviting a specific guest, not deciding their friend may bring anyone from her mother to her plumber to the guy she met last night.

Never teh Bride: I myself am not opposed to ‘and guest’ing when one has a dear friend who isn’t married or dating anyone but will not know a single soul at the wedding. Being a bit shy myself, I know how it feels to be along in a sea full of strangers, and I wouldn’t want to subject anyone I care about to that. The bride and groom are often too busy to give each guest a great deal of personal attention and sadly very few people seem to be good at small talk these days. I can’t remember the last time a stranger asked me to dance!

Twistie: But I think we can both agree that inviting a single guest who is not in a serious relationship to come stag does not somehow make that person a second class citizen. That’s silly. That assumes that it is a) somehow the host’s responsibility to pair everyone up a la Noah’s ark for the event, and b) that couples are getting special rewards out of the event that singles are not. It’s also quite rude to assume that the hosts are somehow required to budget for a significant number of total strangers who are unlikely ever to be a part of their social circle to come to their party.

Never teh Bride: Oh my, yes. Inviting everyone’s SOs can be quite the financial strain. When betrothed couples look for ways to cut costs, the piece of advice they see most often is “Limit your guest list.” If money’s already tight, inviting scads of strangers to share in your big day just plain doesn’t make sense. Plus, I’ve always thought it rather weird for everyone involved — the ‘and guest’ who has to congratulate two people he’s never met and the newlyweds who have to thank said guest for coming.

Twistie: Since you, Melissa B., are already part of their social circle and you live with your boyfriend, chances are he’s going to stick around for some time and eventually become known to the circle. That is not the same as making sure that Bonnie in accounting has a date for the evening because she lacks the social confidence to mingle with other guests, both attached and single. It’s my experience that more than three-quarters of having a good time while single comes from assuming that one can have a good time whether one has a date or not.

Never the Bride: I’d still let poor shy Bonnie bring a date, but I am a bit of a wallflower myself so I feel her pain. If everyone followed the Miss Manners seating rule – people who live under the same roof ought to be sat separately – then things might be different because everyone attending would have a reason to converse with their tablemates. Really, people tend to spend way too much time at parties discussing the same old topics with the same old Social Units.

Twistie: Should a couple decide to go to the expense of including guests with every singleton, then that’s mighty generous of them. It is not, however, a social obligation because singles are simply Social Units of One. Besides, many a romance has started because two single people happened to meet at a wedding.

Never teh Bride: Are you sure about that?

Twistie: The most complicated question is how to deal with two people who have been together for a while but have not made any formal commitment. In this case, it really is up to the happy couple whether they recognize the relationship with an invitation or not. Some decide not to invite SOs sans long-term commitment. Many use a rule of thumb about how long the couple has been together such as inviting SOs who have been with their friends for a minimum of three or six months. Some try to decide just how serious the relationship looks to them and go from there.

Never teh Bride: If it is financially viable to have guests bringing guests and the invitee isn’t sure who’s zoomin’ who, he or she can simply reach out to loved ones to ask whether there is someone serious in their lives that they might like to bring to the wedding. Problem solved…and with open communication, no less! That way, you find out all the hot gossip AND you can be sure you’re doing right by everyone’s favorite etiquette maven, Judith Martin.

Twistie: All of that said, I think you and your boyfriend were right not to take umbrage over these missed invitations. Unless the couples involved have made it quite clear that they meant it as a social cut, it’s best and most polite to assume — and to go on assuming — they were simply unfamiliar with the rules of etiquette in this situation. After all, you didn’t know the rules, either.

Never teh Bride: All of that said, I still don’t think that weddings are the best places for singles to meet other singles. Too much pressure!

16 Responses to “In which we tackle invitation etiquette, from social units to ‘and guest’ing”

  1. Jen March 7, 2008 at 11:13 am #

    A couple years ago I had a situation that I found to be annoying. I’d been dating a guy for 9 months, and had met a lot of his friends, though I’d only met the bride and groom once. They got married in the town in which we all live, on a holiday weekend. Not just on the weekend, but on the holiday itself. Think July 4, New Year’s Eve or Labor Day. And they only invited my BF. I’m pretty self sufficient, but I thought it was rude/cheap to exclude non-married partners from a wedding on a day when people would typically be otherwise celebrating the holiday with their SO.

  2. JaneC March 7, 2008 at 2:49 pm #

    I sent a few “and guest” invitations because I wasn’t sure how to find out the names of the SOs of some of my guests. I mean, do you just go up to the person and say, “Hi, I’m sending out invitations soon; what’s your wife’s name and does she have a doctorate too?” Some of my coworkers never bring their SOs to parties and don’t discuss their personal lives at work–no one else in the department would be able to supply me with names, and the only way to find out would have been to ask directly, which seems awfully awkward.

  3. Donna March 7, 2008 at 4:58 pm #

    Yes invite the SO [living together, engaged, more than a casual date], if you don’t know their name find it out, invite a co worker and their spouse. The SO or coworkers spouse do not have to come but you do have to invite them. You can invite a single friend and guest but you aren’t obligated to do so.

  4. Dianasaur March 7, 2008 at 5:35 pm #

    A heard a single acquaintance was shocked that I wasn’t going to invite her plus one so that she could have a great excuse to find a date. She said every single person should be able to bring a date. Knowing she’d have about 30 friends there, half of whom were single, I didn’t feel bad at all. I also factored in that she was pretty upset when my husband and I started dating, so it was probably a sour grapes thing!

  5. Kristen March 7, 2008 at 5:36 pm #

    I agree with Never teh Bride that, if you’re inviting someone who won’t know anyone, it’s very nice to allow him or her to bring a guest. Aside from the reception, where people are chatting and (hopefully) mingling, there’s getting there (especially if travel is involved) and the ceremony (no fun to sit by oneself).

    However, if it’s a single who will have other friends there (like sorority sisters or high school pals), a single invitation is fine — who wants the pressure of having to try to find a date if you’re not already serious with someone? I’d rather dance with my girlfriends in that case!

    Of course, if the single in question is someone you’re inviting out of courtesy in the first place and you’d actually prefer it if they sent regrets, not inviting his or her SO makes all the sense in the world.

  6. Never teh Bride March 7, 2008 at 6:43 pm #

    Of course, if the single in question is someone you’re inviting out of courtesy in the first place and you’d actually prefer it if they sent regrets, not inviting his or her SO makes all the sense in the world.

    Ooh, you’re devious, Kristen ;-)

  7. Melissa B. March 7, 2008 at 7:37 pm #

    Of course, if the single in question is someone you’re inviting out of courtesy in the first place and you’d actually prefer it if they sent regrets, not inviting his or her SO makes all the sense in the world.

    Yikes! I hope that wasn’t the intention of those invitations I got, since I RSVP’d yes! (I was a bridesmaid in one of those weddings, so I’m pretty sure the bride wanted me there for that one at least.)

    Your take makes sense, NtB and Twistie. I’ll continue not being offended, but when I put together my own guest list I’ll pay more attention to the Social Units. :-)

  8. class-factotum March 7, 2008 at 9:47 pm #

    I am not going to be invited to my fiance’s stepdaughter’s (whom I have not met) wedding in August. At first, I was really annoyed — Chris and I should be married by then. (Hurry up with that annulment, Archdiocese of Milwaukee!) I wanted Chris to tell his stepdaughter that you don’t invite only one half of a married couple, but then I realized that my being gracious about the whole thing would only highlight the bitchy/crazy of her mother, my fiance’s ex, who is the reason the stepdaughter doesn’t want me to come. That is, nasty ex-wife who threatens to make a scene if I’m not invited vs calm, sweet fiancee of step-dad who says, “I don’t want to make your wedding any more stressful. We’ll just get together some other time. Have a wonderful day!”

  9. Melissa B. March 7, 2008 at 10:42 pm #

    class-factotum, good for you! I know your future stepdaughter will appreciate your generosity and class. I’m in a similar situation to your fiancé’s stepdaughter. My mother absolutely hates my father’s girlfriend and I know having Girlfriend and Mom in the same room on my wedding day would cause major drama. (In my mom’s defense, this is the woman for whom my father ended their marriage, formerly known as “the mistress,” and the divorce is still pretty recent.) I’m still not quite sure how to handle it all. If Girlfriend kindly said she was OK with skipping it I would be so, so relieved and grateful. So on behalf of daughters in difficult situations, thank you.

  10. Tizzy March 8, 2008 at 11:29 am #

    The rule of thumb my cousin used at her wedding last year was that she invited any significant others that her guest had been with before the engagement (about 14 months before the invites went out).

    My BF and I have been together for 2 years and we moved in together on Monday. I wouldn’t go to a wedding he wasn’t invited to. That’s just weird. I certainly would have said something if I was a bridesmaid in some one’s wedding and they left him off the invite.

  11. Sarah C. March 8, 2008 at 11:49 am #

    We wanted to keep our reception small- less than 50 guests, so it would be an intimate party instead of a zoo where you don’t get to speak to people or spend any time with the guests. So no +1s were invited, and we explained why we were sticking with the guest list. Only one person got offended and didn’t come because we hadn’t invited his girlfriend of one month (who we had never met). Everyone else was either family or very close friends.

    Everyone raved about the reception and how great and “un-receptionlike” it was, which was our intention, so one person dropping out wasn’t too bad.

  12. Melissa B. March 8, 2008 at 12:49 pm #

    Tizzy, the bride’s parents are *very* conservative and were paying for the bridesmaids’ hotel rooms – I think they would have had a joint stroke if I’d asked to bring my live-in boyfriend to share the room! Besides, the wedding was out-of-state, and held on a weekend when my boyfriend couldn’t possibly have attended anyway. If we’d planned to go together I would have talked to the bride about it (and paid for my own hotel room), but as it was, it just didn’t seem like a big deal.

    Now that I know how important this can be to some guests, I’m definitely going to be more sensitive to inviting established couples to my own wedding. I like your cousin’s rule of thumb, that seems very reasonable!

  13. Dent March 8, 2008 at 1:45 pm #

    We are inviting the SO’s of everyone in the wedding party, but I worry about said SO’s being lonely because their partner is in the wedding party and they are left to sit with strangers during the ceremony and reception. At the very least, we are trying to find a large enough limo to accommodate the full party and their significant others.

    With guest limitations, I am having more trouble determining how to approach my coworkers for invitations. My fiance works in a very small company (less that 15 people total) and so inviting everyone isn’t much concern. However I work with over 150 people. While obviously my own department will all receive invitations, I don’t know how many more guests we can accommodate. I have discussed in some detail the wedding plans with coworkers in other departments and I don’t want them to feel offended if they don’t receive an invitation.

    A friend of mine sent an email to all of her coworkers letting them know they were welcome to attend the reception, but my parents are paying for the reception and we can’t afford to pay for more plates than we accounted for. D:

  14. Never teh Bride March 8, 2008 at 8:18 pm #

    Way to take the high road, class-factotum! You rock!

  15. Annalucia March 9, 2008 at 1:54 pm #

    Ah – this is a most sore point in our family.

    Six years ago the Sonia (that is the eldest daughter of the Annalucia and the Tedesco) was married. Her guest list included both of her aunts on the maternal side but not the SO of one of them. Be it understood that the aunt and the SO live several hundred miles away, were neither living together nor engaged, nor had any of us met the gentleman – so the Sonia did not invite him and the aunt came alone.

    Several months later the SO was dead – he had long been ill, apparently, though the Annalucia’s sister had never breathed so much as a word about this to anyone. And to this day the sister, she holds it against us that we did not invite him.

    ::gran sospiro::

  16. class-factotum March 9, 2008 at 4:01 pm #

    Thanks, Melissa and Never! In intend to milk this for all it’s worth. :)

    For the record, I met Chris three years after he filed for divorce. I am not the homewrecker!