On the whole, it’s usually a good idea to make an effort to attend the wedding of someone who is important to you. Sure, the wedding is just one day and often crowded with guests, but people remember who was there on their big day. The very act of showing up is a long-term investment in your relationship. If you’re close to the couple, you should make a good faith effort to be part of their celebration.
But sometimes it’s necessary to decline a thoughtful invitation to someone’s wedding. This is your Zola guide for how to politely send your regrets.
Using proper etiquette, if you must decline a wedding invitation, then you have to actually send your regrets. This is true if the informal invitation is an email with a Zoom link sent to a thousand people or if it came covered in rose petals carried on the wings of hired homing pigeons. Whatever your reason for declining—good or bad—you should respond to every wedding invitation you receive.
There are many reasons for declining an invitation to someone’s wedding, but some are better than others. These are some of the reasons you might need to decline:
Attending a wedding can be very expensive for guests, especially if you have to book a flight and hotel room. You never should feel obligated to attend a wedding if it’s going to really strain your finances.
There will sometimes be a major scheduling conflict with the wedding you’re invited to attend. Maybe your best friend is getting married on the same weekend as your sister. Maybe your colleague planned a wedding in the middle of your fully booked, non-refundable trip abroad. Maybe three different people in your life announced weddings within three weeks of each other, and you simply cannot take the time off work.
There are times where you simply don’t want to attend the wedding. You might be invited to the wedding of a distant cousin, a casual acquaintance, or someone from work with whom you don’t want to pursue a friendship out of the office. You might be going through a bad divorce, recently suffered a personal tragedy, or otherwise not up for weddings. There might even be a time you have ill feelings towards one partner in the couple. Or there might be a more trivial reason, such as when the wedding conflicts with concert tickets or a desired trip.
A formal invitation is not a summons. You should only attend a wedding if you will be present in celebration with the couple. While you should always investigate your motivations and see if you can make it work, there will be times where the relationship is sufficiently casual that it feels like too much of a hassle and it makes sense to decline.
There is no kindness in dragging your feet. If you cannot attend, let the couple know as soon as possible. If you’re unsure, then work through your schedule and budget as soon as you get the invitation, so you can give a timely response. The couple cannot finalize arrangements with the caterer or other details until they have their guest list, and they might want to invite someone else in your place. The earlier you decline, the easier it will be for everyone.
You don’t want to lie about the reason you’re missing a wedding, but there’s no reason to be cruel in the name of being honest. If you simply don’t want to attend, you still must give some sort of reason. For a casual friend, you can say you have a work commitment that you sadly just cannot miss or explain that you “would love to attend, but can’t swing the budget this year.” Stay in the realm of categorical reasons, and be clear that this is your final answer. Wedding planning can be hectic, so even if the couple is sad, they’ll appreciate the clarity.
A phone call is the most personal, gracious way to decline a wedding invitation. If you’re close to the couple or you think they’ll be hurt that you cannot attend, you should pick up the phone. Give a brief explanation of why you cannot attend, and apologize. While you should still decline through formal channels—whether by a return invitation or on their wedding website—calling is a nice touch. When declining for a simple reason, you can try something like this:
If your reason is more complicated, then plan in advance how much detail you want to share. The goal should be to convey the category of the reason you cannot attend—prior engagement, budget constraints, work commitments, travel, etc—so the couple understands you have not been cavalier about the invitation, but not to burden them with the details. You certainly don’t want to share details if the reason might not seem a sufficient hurdle.
A written message, in addition to declining the invitation, is another way to add warmth to your response. You can write a few lines in email or even in a text message noting why you are unable to attend and expressing how sorry you are to miss the event. If you have a close personal relationship with the couple, then something similar to the wording for a phone call, above, will likely be appropriate.
When declining the wedding invitation of someone who isn’t likely to be devastated by your absence, you can be less emotional, and write something such as:
If you want to be more personal, then you can add one or two lines about a memory or recollection you have of the couple.
If you have to decline a wedding invitation after accepting, then you must do so immediately and with as much apology as you can muster. Depending on when you are revoking your response, the couple might have already paid for your meal and arranged the seating. In this case, you should call or send a heartfelt message.
You will need a good reason. This should be a true work, family, or health emergency—or something of equal urgency. If you miscalculated your budget or forgot to apply for a visa in advance, then elide the details of your own fault unless you want to permanently sour the relationship. Lots of people will be understanding, but this is not a great thing to do, so err on the side of making too much of a fuss rather than too little. Either of these samples would work:
“Dear Allison, I am so sorry, but I am not going to be able to attend your wedding next month. My youngest son suffered a bad knee injury this morning while playing hockey, and will need to go in for surgery the afternoon of your reception. I was heartbroken when I realized it would be the same day as your wedding. You always discuss [name of partner] with such an air of genuine love and care, and I was very much looking forward to celebrating with you. What a strange and unpredictable world. I cannot wait to see the pictures, and I will be there in spirit. Sending all the love and joy in the world.”
“Oh, Allison—I’ve been putting off writing this email since this morning, because I’m so upset, but it looks like I will not be able to attend your wedding. I applied to renew my passport two months ago, and I just got an update that because of my name change after my own wedding, it will take another two months before it is processed.
I feel so ridiculous, but I spent the day on the phone with various agencies, and it just doesn't seem like there will be a way around this. I’m so sorry for not confirming all of this before I said yes. I was so excited to be there, and it never occurred to me that a passport renewal could take four months.”
“Dear Allison, I was so moved to be invited to your wedding, and was very much looking forward to it. I’m terribly sorry to share that I will actually not be able to attend. Some urgent family business came up this weekend, and I had to book a flight across the country for tomorrow. I know this is awful timing and so close to the event itself. I really wish it had not happened this way. I’m so sorry I won’t be there.”
If you are close with the couple, you should send a gift and check in with them a few days after the wedding. Tell them the pictures looked beautiful, or that you heard how much fun the reception was. This will make it clear that you regret not being able to attend and make them feel cared for.
Sending a gift is often the right choice after declining a wedding, though not always needed. The era of Zoom weddings has blurred some lines around gifting etiquette, as the remote guest list has swelled without constraint. If you think you would have been invited to the physical, in-person wedding, then it would be nice to send a gift once you declined.
The gift allows you to be part of their wedding memories, even if it’s just the kitchen utensils from their registry that make them think of you when they cook. If you feel like an associate who got invited along with everyone they know, then you can send a gracious note instead of a gift.
Let's face it, nobody likes to be rejected, but if you find that you have to turn down a wedding invitation, hopefully this guide can help you navigate the right way—and the wrong way—to do so.