What to Do & How to Tell Someone You Can't Go to Their Wedding

Four tips on how to deal with a circumstance when you can't make it to attend a close friend or relative's nuptials.

If you find yourself busy on the day of a pal’s wedding or you do not feel comfortable attending a friend's wedding day due to health concerns, here are some tips on how to handle it.

modern las vegas wedding reception at red rock resort spa casino poolside wedding ceremony ghost chairs guests
Photo: Haley Ringo Photography

When creating the guest list for your wedding, it’s important that you discount the notion of RSVP declines, so that you can estimate for the maximum number of attendees (just in case); however, unfortunately, the truth is: not everyone you send a wedding invitation to will be able to make it to your celebration. While it’s disheartening to know this as a bride or groom, it’s also a difficult thing when the roles are reversed and you realize that you cannot make it to the nuptials of a close friend or family member.

Everyone has certain commitments they cannot get out of causing them to be unable to attend, and because of this, sometimes people must skip the “I dos” of someone they love. It may be that the invited guest has already committed to another ceremony and reception on the same day, or they may not be able to travel at all. While it's not polite to ask why someone cannot attend your celebration of love, some of your friends and family may offer up a reason that will put your mind at ease.

With the effects of the Covid pandemic – related to state guidelines, issues with traveling long distances or to another country for a destination wedding, and postponed wedding dates conflicting with other commitments – it's become even more common for brides to hear that the people they once thought would be part of the big day can no longer attend. Unfortunately, this may also occur with a member of the bridal party. While it's never fun to hear that someone you sent an invite to cannot attend or find out a bridesmaid is dropping out of the wedding, it's important now more than ever to be understanding and focus on what matters most: marrying the love of your life no matter how many people will be in attendance.

If you find yourself busy on the day of a pal’s wedding or you do not feel comfortable attending a friend's wedding day due to health concerns, here are some tips on how to handle it:

1. Let them know personally.

Rather than worry about upsetting the bride and groom, it’s pertinent that you let them know right away – whether they are a friend, family member, or even coworker. If this person is a close friend of yours, they should understand your prior engagement or reason for not attending. Whether you’re missing their vow exchange for something unavoidable or you simply don't want the experience to affect your health, couples will understand the difficult decision you've had to make.

When you're sharing the news with the couple, don’t try to embellish your reasoning: any white lies you might tell to spare their feelings could backfire. Be honest with them – for example, it’s out of the question to reschedule your niece’s college graduation or a completely paid-for trip out of the country. Convey how important they are to you, acknowledge your friendship and your disappointment to not be able to attend the festivities, and let them know that you support them 100% throughout the planning process, their marriage, and beyond.

2. Once you send back the RSVP, stick to your decision.

If you've received the wedding invitation and you're not sure if you will be able to attend, make a decision within the deadline. Before sending back the RSVP card for a family or friend's wedding, you should be absolutely sure about your unavailability prior to mailing back your response. The couple will need the information from their RSVP list to finalize a lot of the other wedding-planning decisions on their to-do list.

You don’t want to go back and forth about your attendance – causing unnecessary stress for the bride and groom, so if you check off the “respectfully decline” box when filling out the RSVP card, know that you shouldn’t be calling the couple a week before the wedding telling them the good news that your commitment fell through and that they should save you a seat near the buffet. Of course there are always exceptions, but be mindful of wedding etiquette and your loved ones will surely be appreciative!

3. Set up a time for you to get together.

Especially if you live close by to the couple, make an effort to get together before or after the wedding to congratulate them personally. Even though it may not be in your budget to attend destination weddings, that doesn't mean that you can't find other ways to celebrate. To demonstrate your affection for this person (or these people), coordinate an outing – or an evening in! – with them prior to or following the wedding to celebrate their nuptials.

Of course, keep in mind that this celebratory excursion should be planned for a convenient time: they’ll probably be incredibly busy in the weeks surrounding their ceremony with wedding planning and enjoying a honeymoon. Offer up ideas of experiences you both enjoy, such as a coffee date, a movie night, or a fun day trip to a nearby destination.

4. Send a wedding gift.

Whether you can get together in person or not, consider giving them a present during your get-together or send one to their address! Unless you have a specific present in mind that's meaningful to you both, you can’t go wrong if you refer to their wedding registry. Warning: if you elect not to purchase off the gift registry – or if they don’t have one – be sure that your present is something for the couple as a whole – not just your friend – as it is a wedding present for both the bride and groom. It’s also nice to add in a personalized, handwritten note or card to express your well wishes for their marriage and your regret at not being able to witness their vows. A little sentiment can go a long way to ensuring the couple feels loved and appreciated in other ways besides attending the wedding itself!

For more tips, discover how to be the perfect maid of honor, see some of the top wedding guest complaints, and read up on tips to ease the process of writing wedding thank-you notes.