Couples who have had their wedding plans sidelined by the coronavirus have handled it in a handful of ways: Some are simply postponing, realizing that guests may not be comfortable traveling to a wedding or being around a relatively large group of people. Others are getting creative, holding their weddings at drive-in theaters or in other socially distant, safe ways — even virtually.
That’s 100% their prerogative ― the phrase “different strokes for different folks” always applies to wedding planning ― but it does put guests who are worried about attending the event because of COVID-19 in a bind.
It has become a surprisingly common concern, said Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette expert and author of “From Clueless to Class Act: Manners for the Modern Woman & Manners for the Modern Man.”
“It started back in March when people were still trying to go forward with events and others were starting to be increasingly concerned by the pandemic,” Smith told HuffPost. “It really heated up when major organizations declared no more business travel and people’s wariness started to really rise.”
That wariness for wedding guests means two things: You can either go to the wedding and risk catching the virus, or you can respectfully tell the couple you need to bow out (even if you already RSPV’d “yes” before coronavirus struck).
How do you do the latter with tact and kindness? Below, etiquette experts and a therapist offer their best advice.
Let the couple know ASAP. And ideally, not by text.
The couple are likely working with a downsized guest list, so let them know immediately if you won’t make it. That way, they can reach out to their B-list invites. (What, you didn’t realize that, even in less pandemic-y times, couples often utilize a tier system for sending out invitations?)
Call your friend rather than texting when breaking the news. Yes, texting is easier, but having a phone or FaceTime conversation is the adult thing to do, said Liz Higgins, a family therapist and founder of Millennial Life Counseling in Dallas.
“Once on the line, communicate your decision to your friend from a place of transparency and honesty,” said Higgins, who has had clients bring up the issue of declining wedding invites during the pandemic.
Tell them why you’re uncomfortable going ― you’re concerned about your health or maybe you have a family member who’s immunocompromised or an elderly relative at home.
“Transparency may sound like, ‘This has not been an easy decision for me to make. I understand you may feel hurt, and I recognize that. But the best decision for me and my family is to stay put,’” she said.
Don’t go overboard with the excuses or effusive apologies.
Couples going ahead with wedding planning right now have most likely already processed that having a wedding in the midst of a pandemic is going to result in a few “respectfully declines.”
Given that, don’t beat around the bush or make up some silly excuse.
“It’s important to be straightforward,” said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and the author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life.” “There is no apology necessary. Say something polite, like, ‘I appreciate the invitation but I am still self-quarantining and I am not traveling or surrounding myself with people in crowds at this time.’”
If you’re in the wedding, don’t wait to make a decision about attending.
What if you’re part of the wedding party and are freaking out about attending? Share your feelings and your decision as soon as possible, said Thomas P. Farley, a New York-based etiquette expert and the host of the podcast “What Manners Most.”
“Don’t wait until the last minute, either because you are dreading the conversation or because you are hemming and hawing about what to do,” he said. “Make up your mind and let them know well in advance so they can make alternative arrangements.”
And remember, stepping down from an in-person role does not mean you can’t contribute to the day in other — maybe even more helpful — ways.
“Rather than abdicating all responsibilities, inquire what you can do to can lend moral and logistical support from a distance,” he said.
Conversely, if you’re certain you’ll be there with bells, share that with the couple, too.
“This will give them the peace of mind of knowing that you are guaranteed to be there come what may,” Farley said. “For instance, I am officiating a beach wedding in October and I told the couple not to worry ― that I will be there whether the wedding has only a starfish and a lobster as witnesses or whether it’s a gathering of their close friends and family.”
The same goes if your child was chosen as the ring bearer or flower girl.
If it’s your child who’s in the wedding, it’s completely reasonable to put their health first.
“Especially for children, because this is the first the world has seen this disease, we have no idea of the long-term ramifications on children,” Smith said. “As the parent, sometimes you have to be the bearer of bad news. Know that the wedding couple is going to be upset; they loved your daughter or son enough to include her in a very important day of their lives. But sometimes you need to step back and ask what is best for your child.”
Recognize that this is an important boundary for you — but be understanding if they do have hurt feelings.
If your engaged friends or family members don’t respect your decision, you have to make peace with the fact that you’re doing what’s best for you.
“Remember, you are setting a boundary here, and while you can remain attuned to your friend’s response and hold space for their feelings, you aren’t responsible for their response or hurt feelings,” Higgins said. “It’s a delicate dance to remain sure of yourself while holding space for another person’s pain, so be kind with yourself as you navigate those steps.”
If your betrothed friend is angry, try to not to take it personally.
“There is a chance there will be anger directed at you, but it’s probably more the situation and what it is doing to all of their planning they are really angry about,” Smith said. “Allow for venting and hurt feelings. Be the bigger and stronger person. Years from now, you will be able to look back knowing you did the right thing.”
Respect whatever decision the couple made. And find different ways to celebrate them.
Be respectful of the couple’s choice to move forward with their wedding. They may have motivating forces you’re not aware of, like a venue that wouldn’t reimburse them if they canceled.
Consider other ways to acknowledge their special day, too. You may not be an in-person guest, but that doesn’t mean you should skip out on a thoughtful gift and card. If they are livestreaming the wedding, be sure to be there virtually and wear your wedding guest outfit when you do, Farley said.
“And then, devise a TBD plan to see one another in-person once the health concerns are no longer a factor in your getting together,” he said.
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