Inviting Trouble

WHOEVER SAID THE HARDEST PART OF A wedding was paying for it never made a guest list. The first flash of a diamond ring sets off a ripple of questions about the date, the venue—and the inevitable assumptions that everyone from your mom’s bridge partner to your grade school teacher will be invited…

WHOEVER SAID THE HARDEST PART OF A wedding was paying for it never made a guest list. The first flash of a diamond ring sets off a ripple of questions about the date, the venue—and the inevitable assumptions that everyone from your mom’s bridge partner to your grade school teacher will be invited.

“The guest list is probably one of the stickiest points of planning a wedding,” says etiquette grand dame Peggy Post, a director of The Emily Post Institute in Burlington, who just finished the fourth revision of her ever-helpful guide, Emily Post’s Wedding Planner (Collins, 2006), the companion to her other go-to guide for brides, Emily Post’s Wedding Etiquette (Collins, 2006), now in its fifth edition. “Realize early on that you have choices to make,” she says.

Do you ever. Luckily, help is available for even the stickiest guest list issues. Here’s how to deal with (and avoid) the faux pas that might otherwise haunt you until the day you say “I do.”

PROBLEM: ’Til Guest Do We Part JUST HAD YOUR FIRST POST-PROPOSAL fight over whether to invite your third cousin, twice removed? You’re not alone. “When you’re dating, you’re pretty much free to do what you want to do,” says Dr. Tom Anastasi, author of The Fight-Free Marriage (Thomas Nelson, 1995) and Personality Negotiating: Conflict without Casualty (McGraw-Hill, 2001). “Now you’re really starting to make joint decisions as a couple, possibly for the first time. It can be somewhat sobering.”

SOLUTION: “This is actually a very good time for conflict resolution training for couples, because these are the very same conflicts they’re going to have when they’re married,” says Anastasi. Talk to your clergy or a professional about couples counseling. It’s not as big a step as it seems. “Conflict is really a signal that things can be improved,” says Anastasi, and addressing these issues early on will lessen the stress down the road. “When people have input into a decision, even if they’re not completely happy with it, they’re more likely to feel better about the outcome.”

PROBLEM: Honey, Can We Afford This? “FIRST-TIME BRIDES CERTAINLY GET sticker shock and don’t realize how much it’s going to cost per guest,” says wedding planner Pamela Chase, owner of Sophisticated Brides in Boston. “Then they start doing the math and realize, ‘Wow, we’ve got to cut this guest list in half to fit our budget.’”

SOLUTION: Decide on a budget you can stick with first, and let that number determine your head count. “Thirty-thousand dollars is a good amount of money, but it doesn’t go far when you’re inviting 250 people,” says Chase. “Realistically, do you socialize with 250 people? Weddings should be an intimate affair, not a cast of thousands.” And definitely don’t inflate your guest list thinking that you’ll recoup the cost in wedding gifts.

PROBLEM: The In(vitation only)-Laws IT WAS SO SWEET OF HIS PARENTS TO offer to help pay for the wedding—or so you thought at the time. That was before they invited great-aunt Susan. And your mother-in-law’s co-workers. And all your father-in-law’s golf buddies. Suddenly, eloping is starting to sound good.

SOLUTION: Even if parents are paying or helping to pay for the wedding, they shouldn’t hijack the guest list. And couples shouldn’t invite more guests than their parents’ budget allows. “The bottom line is that it’s the couple’s wedding no matter who’s paying for it, but they have to be realistic, too,” says Post. The best tactic is to head them off at the pass: Give each parent a set number of invitations—say 25 percent of the total list—to use as they will.

PROBLEM: I Was Only Being Nice! SOMETIMES, DESPITE YOUR BEST EFFORTS, guests happen. One Boston-area bride recalls how a courtesy invite to two distant relatives unexpectedly yielded eight extra guests when they insisted on bringing their grown children and parents. She and her fiance finessed the situation with creative backpedaling and no small measure of grace, but how can you avoid The Guest List That Ate Tokyo?

SOLUTION: Tagalongs are only OK when they’re being sold by Girl Scouts. “It happens all the time,” says Chase. If the couple finds out in advance of the Big Day, it’s fine to call and politely explain that while you would love to have the extra well-wishers, there is no space or funding for an extra person. “As a wedding planner, I’ve made a lot of those calls myself,” says Chase. “Most people realize what they did was not exactly kosher and are quick to back down.”

PROBLEM: Regrets Only

YOUR GREAT-GRANDMOTHER HAS SURgery scheduled for the day of your wedding, and your cousin in Alaska is afraid of flying. Do you have to send invitations anyway?

SOLUTION: In the end, it’s not worth the hurt feelings you’ll cause to save a few bucks on postage. “If someone is in poor health or lives far away and most likely won’t make it, send them an invitation anyway,” says Post. “They’ll be hurt if you don’t, and they might surprise you.” (Just be prepared if they do.)

PROBLEM: Second Guesting YOUR SISTER RSVP’D—WITH HER NEW boyfriend. Who wasn’t in the picture when the invitations were mailed. Does he stay or does he go?

SOLUTION: “You should invite spouses and fiances and sometimes live-ins, even if you don’t know them,” says Post. “But there are really no obligations after that.” Having friends bring dates is optional, but a courtesy. Just be sure you know who you are inviting. “Whoever’s name is on the envelope is who is being invited, so be careful,” says Post. “If you say Mr. and Mrs. John Smith & Family, that means anyone who is living under their roof. Don’t be surprised.”

PROBLEM: I’m Invited, Right? WHOOPS, YOUR CO-WORKERS ASSUMED they were coming. And whoops, so did your boss. None of them made the cut. How do you break the news without being labelled a Bridezilla?

SOLUTION: “If you’re having a small wedding, tell friends and co-workers early on so they don’t expect to be invited,” says Post. Make your cut-offs consistent—it’s easier, and kinder, not to invite any co-workers than to invite just a few. Anastasi recommends a tactic known as two-stage negotiation, which is essentially good cop/bad cop: “I’d love to add you to the guest list, but the venue maxes out at 150.” Blame your budget. Or the fire marshal. Or the venue coordinators. “Making someone else the bad cop allows everyone to save face,” he says.

PROBLEM: The Ultimatum Game
YOUR TWO AUNTS HAVEN’T SPOKEN IN years, or, even worse, your long-divorced parents refuse to acknowledge each other’s new spouses. How do you invite them all and still keep the peace—especially when faced with an “It’s her or me” demand?

the high road, and don’t get involved in other people’s petty disputes, says Chase. You have enough to worry about. “The best thing a bride can do is send the invitation out and say, ‘I’d love for you both to be there. I’ll understand whatever decision you make.’ And, of course, honor their request not to seat them at the same table or put them in the same photographs.”

PROBLEM: You’re Uninvited YOU WERE ONLY COUNTING ON 120 RSVPs when you sent out the invitations—and you got, gulp, all 200 back. Worse, the venue only seats 150. Now what are you supposed to do?

SOLUTION: It is never, ever OK to uninvite guests, says Post, so don’t overbook yourself. Almost as bad is the A list/B list approach, where brides send out a second round of invitations when their RSVPs don’t look so healthy approaching the wedding day. “That’s been done at one or two of my weddings, and you risk some very dangerous, ugly situations,” says Chase. “It’s never a good idea.”

PROBLEM: High-Risk Guests YOU INVITED, THEY CAME—AND now you wish they hadn’t. We all have friends or relatives (or both) who are known to get out of hand around an open bar. How do you make sure they don’t on one of the biggest days of your life?

SOLUTION: “Plan ahead. If the groom has friends who can get rowdy—or the bride does—ask other friends to please keep an eye on them,” says Post. You can also speak to the bartenders ahead of time and ask them to make the drinks weaker, or just schedule with care. Keep the cocktail hour to just that, and serve food the whole time. Plan your toasts early. And have someone ready to step in and deal with the troublemaker if things start to go awry.

PROBLEM: RSVPs are MIA IT’S EASY TO SYMPATHIZE WITH THE Boston bride who was horrified last October to find that less than half her RSVPs had been returned by the date she requested. “It is very frustrating to say the least,” she says. “Guests do not take into consideration all the time and effort that goes into a wedding.” Not to mention postage. What’s a girl to do?

SOLUTION: “Call them,” says Chase. Or have your wedding planner call them. You’ll need a final catering count, at the very least. But even if you do get a response from everyone on your list, be aware that you still may have some no-shows. “No matter how carefully you plan, 3 percent of the people won’t make it,” says Anastasi. “I’ve never seen a wedding where all the place cards are taken. Just assume that’s an overhead cost of doing a big event like a wedding.”