Search for “bridesmaid proposal” on Etsy and you’ll be met with 49,465 results. There are the cutesy mugs (“I can’t marry my mister without my sister”) and the cards that seem less of a request than an order (“You’re obviously going to be my maid of honor — and no, that wasn’t a question”). These 49,465 data points perfectly illustrate why so many people feel like they can’t say no to being in a bridal party, or to any of the other social contracts associated with modern weddings.
But despite what Etsy (or Instagram, or a snooty relative) tells you, a save-the-date card is not a subpoena. You are allowed to say no, even to the wedding itself. That said, the stakes can feel incredibly high during wedding planning, and a perfectly reasonable “I’m so sorry, I can’t” can feel loaded with meaning. If you want the friendship to last, it’s important to approach the situation with consideration, grace — and a plan.
What to Know Before Your No
Before you make a decision, think about why you want to say no, and accept that your friend will likely be disappointed. “I think you need to clarify for yourself the potential of doing damage to the friendship,” said Andrea Bonior, a therapist in Bethesda, Md., and the author of “The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up with Your Friends” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011). “It’s not that you can’t do it, but I think you have to have a reality check that you might pay the price later on.”
Being in someone’s bridal party is symbolic, and your friend might perceive your declining as a personal rejection, even if it’s not. That said, even if he or she is likely to be upset, it might still be the right choice for you.
Saying yes out of obligation or guilt can lead to resentment and disappointment all around. “It should feel like a choice you are making because you want to,” said Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship expert based in Montreal. “It also shouldn’t come at the expense of your own well-being.”
You should opt out if your financial security, physical and mental health, professional goals and relationships are going to seriously suffer.
Once you’ve decided to say no, tell your friend as soon as possible. Ms. Kirmayer said. Avoid waffling or attempting to communicate your ambivalence indirectly, which can lead to more confusion and heartache. And know that saying yes and then backing out later will likely do more damage than just being direct early on.
How to Say No to Being in the Bridal Party
When you’re ready to tell your friend you won’t be joining the bridal party, you should say it in a way that feels authentic to you and appropriate for the relationship, experts say. The conversation with a lifelong BFF will likely be different than one with a co-worker you barely know. Regardless of who you are talking to, take the matter seriously; aim to be sincere, kind and extremely gentle. You can’t totally mitigate hurt feelings or disappointment, but being thoughtful will go a long way.
If you’re unsure where to begin, here is some language to use as a jumping off point:
I am so honored that you asked me to be in your bridal party, but I’m going to have to decline. I know that being in the bridal party — even for someone who is low-key, like you! — requires a fair amount of bandwidth, and I’m stretched so thin right now because of [grad school/work/my newborn]. You deserve [bridesmaids/groomsmen] who can show up for you every step of the way, and I know I can’t give you that. I care about you and [Partner] a lot, so this isn’t a decision I’m making lightly. I’m so sorry that I won’t be able to do this for you, and I totally understand if you’re disappointed or upset with me.
If it’s a close friend, Ms. Bonior said to consider whether there’s anything you could say yes to. You could add something like, “Even though I can’t say yes to this, is there anything else I can do to support and honor you?”
Whatever you say, keep it brief. “There can often be this tendency to over explain or go into too much detail, particularly when we feel like we’re hurting somebody close to us,” Ms. Kirmayer said. “That can be experienced as insincere or just sort of off-putting.”
You should still provide a reason. While you don’t owe anyone an explanation, a hard no is more likely to come across as a personal rejection.
It’s O.K. to cite your finances as the reason. Don’t use this as an excuse if you actually have the money but are just choosing not to spend it on this — or if a friend could reasonably believe that’s the case.
Finally, know that this isn’t a conversation to have via text message. “I think it is best to have a phone call if you can because it shows that you’re going to truly make time for them,” Ms. Bonior said. “Text is too casual because it doesn’t reflect that you realize it’s a big deal to them. In terms of an email, that’s sort of a last resort.”
Saying No to Other Events
Even if you’ve agreed to be in the bridal party, other events might necessitate a no. The wedding shower and bachelor/bachelorette party, in particular, can be expensive and time intensive. It’s completely acceptable to sit one or both of these out, particularly if you’re a long-distance friend.
“In the past 10 years, people’s perception of what normal is for these smaller events has gotten deeply skewed,” said Meg Keene, author of “A Practical Wedding” (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2011) and founder of a website by the same name. “A bridal shower didn’t used to be something that you flew somewhere to attend,” she said.
If you’re not in the bridal party, you can just mark “no” on the R.S.V.P. card for the bridal shower, especially if the person isn’t a close friend. Otherwise, the prevailing advice still applies: Be direct, say something early, offer a brief explanation, be kind. You might say, “I know how important this weekend is to you and I really wish I could be there. Unfortunately with finances and my family obligations, I can’t make it happen. I’m so sorry. I’m really looking forward to the wedding itself.”
And yes, Ms. Bonior said, that “sorry” is important. “If you want to keep the friendship as it was before, it is something to apologize for,” she said. “Say, ‘I’m really sorry to have to miss this.’ Even if you’re sort of like, ‘I have the right to miss this.’ Well, of course you do. But you still need to apologize because it reflects that you understand how much it means to them, and that it is an important thing, even if it’s not important to you.”
You may also want to look for other ways to celebrate them. If you can’t attend a close friend’s bridal shower, for example, Ms. Kirmayer suggested coordinating a recipe or advice book where you get input from their loved ones. “Those actions can sometimes be more impactful than the words we use,” she said.
Dealing With Various Requests
As wedding season progresses, you might encounter a slew of small requests that feel very big. It could be buying matching swimsuits for the bachelorette weekend in Nashville, or attending a post-wedding brunch (which will mean taking a later return flight that costs an additional $300). Because emotions and expectations can run high, it can be difficult for everyone involved to recognize what constitutes a reasonable request.
“People hem and haw and they say, ‘I should suck this up,’” Ms. Bonior said. “You’re not just a body in the dress; you’re a friend who has things going on.”
Anyone who cares enough about you to include you in a wedding should be willing to listen and empathize. You could say something like, “I’m really honored to be there for you, and I’m looking forward to this wedding, but some things you’re asking are really hard for me.” Try not to demean them or the request. Instead, be willing to be vulnerable, and ask them to help you problem solve.
Advice for Couples Feeling Rejected
If a friend can’t be in your wedding or come to a prewedding event, you’re allowed to feel hurt or upset, and to say, “This is disappointing” or “I’m really sad to hear this because this means a lot to me.” Let yourself feel your feelings and give yourself time and space to get over it. Rushing to move on or pushing your emotions aside can lead to resentment and do long-term damage to a relationship.
Even though it might feel like a personal rejection, try to remember that it likely has very little to do with you. “Think about their life, their commitments, their emotional makeup, the demands on their time,” Ms. Bonior said. “Give them the benefit of the doubt and let some time pass and see where things are with the friendship.”
If the friend is declining a smaller event or request, think about the ways he or she is involved. “Making an effort to notice how they do show up will help you to not feel as personally rejected,” Ms. Kirmayer said. “And turn to your other friends and the other important people in your life. Focus on what you are getting and receiving as opposed to what’s missing.”
A rejection may hurt now, but it probably won’t have a major effect on your wedding day. “We all have this idea that we need to have the perfect group of people at our wedding,” Ms. Keene said. “The reality is, there’s so much going on, you tend not to process people who aren’t there. Your focus is on the people you care about who are there.”
Whether you’re the person saying no or the person hearing it, keep in mind that asking for what one needs is a good thing. “Setting boundaries is not a tool for disconnection; if anything, it’s a way to preserve our friendships,” Ms. Kirmayer said. “The vast majority of friendships experience conflict like this. It’s not the absence of conflict that makes a friendship close. It’s how we navigate that together.”