Traditional Wedding Etiquette for the Modern Family

Find out how traditional wedding etiquette relates to same-sex weddings and modern events.

The beauty of same-sex weddings is how easily they fit right in with established wedding etiquette – because in the end, the opportunity to create a meaningful wedding day and thoughtfully include your guests isn’t based on gender; it’s based on love.

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Photo: Peter Nguyen Studio

The heart of a wedding isn’t about flower arrangements, favors for guests, or color schemes. It’s about the couple’s love for one another and how they share making such a deep commitment with their closest friends and family. The best weddings are the ones that are a true representation of the couple – be it a fancy black-tie affair or a Western string-tie barn dance – and which show consideration of their guests’ experience into account every step of the way. The beauty of same-sex weddings is how easily they fit right in with established wedding etiquette – because in the end, the opportunity to create a meaningful wedding day and thoughtfully include your guests isn’t based on gender; it’s based on love.

Very little wedding etiquette differs a same-sex marriage from a heterosexual marriage. It’s an equal-opportunity process no matter the gender pairing in question; you can look to tradition as a model, but just as heterosexual couples may have reason to adapt or abandon certain traditions, so do same-sex couples. Would you like to have formal engraved invitations? Register for gifts? Have a mother-son dance? Toss a bouquet? It’s all about what’s meaningful to you and your guests – and when something doesn’t make sense for you, skip it. Here are a few instances when you may need to adapt traditionally gendered roles to suit your wedding:

Terms of Endearment

If you like, use the traditional “fiancé” or “fiancée” during your engagement. After the ceremony, many couples introduce each other as “spouse” or “life partner.” Regardless of how couples refer to their relationship, the etiquette point is to choose language that will readily be understood by others.

Wedding Invitations

Same-sex unions can take various forms, and your invitation should reflect the nature of the service, whether it is a marriage ceremony, civil union, or commitment ceremony. Other choices to describe commitment ceremonies include: affirmation ceremony, celebration of commitment, rite of blessing, relationship covenant, and union ceremony. Beyond the essentials of who, what, when, and where, the invitation style and wording is up to you.

If both sets of parents (or other family) appear on the invitation as hosts, there is no etiquette as to which set of names appears first. You might decide to choose the order alphabetically or flip a coin. Either way, list the couple’s names respectively to their parents’.

When addressing envelopes to same-sex couples (or addressing invitations to unmarried couples who live together), modern etiquette now calls for the couple’s names to appear on the same line. The order does not matter, though if one member of the couple has a title such as doctor or reverend, list their name first.  

Wedding Attire

Your attire should reflect the formality of your wedding, and you should feel comfortable with your choice. When Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi married, Ellen wore a simple white pantsuit (as is her normal style) and Portia donned a formal wedding dress. They both looked beautiful, but they could just as easily have both worn dress pants or both worn bridal gowns if that had been their wish. 

Guest Seating at the Ceremony

Same-sex couples don’t have a “groom’s side” and a “bride’s side,” so at the rehearsal determine who will stand on which side and offer guests who have a preference a choice of “Will’s side” or “Dave’s side.”

Walking Down the Aisle

At one same-sex wedding, the grooms chose to walk down the aisle together, hand-in-hand. This was a beautiful adaptation of the traditional walk the bride takes with her father, and the guests all clapped when they saw the couple together. No etiquette was broken; in fact, it was perfect for this couple, and therefore the best choice. 

Expressing Thanks

There are a few traditions every couple, same-sex or not, should make room for. First, be sure to speak with and thank every guest who attends your wedding. For weddings over about 75 guests, a receiving line becomes a very good idea to ensure no one is missed at the reception. The couple might start the line, or one of their sets of parents if they are hosting. Second, thank-you notes are another must, and may be written by either partner (and signed by both, if you wish). Monogrammed stationery should reflect your current initials. For example, if you plan to change your last name, wait until after the wedding to use any new monogram. Duograms, which use the couple’s first name initials are popular, and are also best saved for after the wedding. 

Traditional etiquette often comes from a place of practicality, consideration for others, or both. Even if a particular tradition no longer has meaning to you, look to its origins to see if there was a purpose it served that you might still wish to achieve in an alternative fashion. As you plan your wedding, remember that it all comes down to being true to yourselves and respectful of your guests, whether you're gay or straight. Satisfy that, and the rest are just happy wedding details.