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Wedding guest lists – Aaarghhh!

Published date: 29th June 2019


Bride and groom, if you think the big day is all about you then you haven’t made up the guest list yet. This is probably the single biggest cause of pre-wedding arguments, and not just between the otherwise happy couple, but with friends, parents, colleagues and family members you haven’t seen for decades. We hope this primer helps.

Preparing a guest list sounds easy. But just like lottery winners when your wedding is announced you’ll find you have family you never knew about and lifelong friends you had been happy to forget years ago. There are ways to handle this situation, but if you escape all problems you are either the world’s first, or you eloped.

The starting point is how many guests you want to invite: if your dream is a small wedding – immediate family only for example – then make that clear to everyone you know as early as you can and they, it is hoped, won’t take the lack of invite badly.

If you are having a larger wedding then it’s best to make sure that the numbers are split roughly 50/50 between the two sides. Or exactly 50/50. Favour one side and even if the bride or groom doesn’t get upset (but they will) their families are sure to.

How many to invite? One logical method is to take your budget for the reception, divide that by what the venue and/or caterers charge per head, and there’s your number to work with. Now it get trickier: remember that in most cases a wedding is a big family occasion, and that tends to mean parents expect extended family members to be invited. It is your day, but take their feelings into account. Some negotiation is almost inevitable along the lines of “If great aunt Flora comes then we can’t afford my best friend from Uni…” Be sensitive. Be doubly sensitive if parents are paying for it, but remember it is your big day.

Another gem is running feuds within families, with an “If she/he goes I won’t” ultimatum often given. We suggest responding to that politely with: “We’re inviting you both, but if you choose not to come we understand. If both come, we’ll seat you on very separate tables.”

That seating plan is another subject again. Some guests may feel where they sit and with whom is a status thing, so we advocate naming tables not numbering them: being on the Jasmine table sounds better than being on table 17. This whole thing applies even moreso to those invited to the evening do and not the wedding breakfast. Step carefully.

Your wedding is your parents’ wedding too: they’re seeing you off in style, and will want to have their own friends to share the day with them. Depending on your budget we’d advise that you agree on the number of people they can invite (make it clear that e.g. four people doesn’t mean two couples plus their children). And make sure that both sides get the same treatment or you’ll suffer for it later.

When you have your guest list it’s time to send the invites. Make sure your RSVP date is practical (early is good) and clearly stated. Likewise the time and place of your ceremony and reception should be included. Check.

If people don’t RSVP on time then call them after say a week’s grace. Make sure too that the invitation (and envelope) states exactly whom you are inviting – if you want just Janet and John, not their kids, don’t put ‘and family’ or you will get them. If they have kids you are desperate not to invite, make a call to explain politely. If you have a gift list sorted, ensure that information is sent with the invite, save yourselves hassle. And if guests try to bully you into extending invites to others, be firm. One rookie error to avoid: people sometimes send out invites to say 100 potential guests expecting 20 to decline. Then they find all 100 say yes, and what’s worse the venue is licensed for just 90. Uninviting people is social death, so don’t risk it.

A tricky point is singleton guests, do you offer +1? It is clearly rude not to invite one of a married couple, but what about engaged couples? And those living together? Or those with boy/girlfriends? There are no rules (though it would be unusual not to invite both from an engaged couple or long-time partners), use your judgement. Where there is a certain etiquette is inviting guests you would have liked to be there but know can’t make it: a great-grandmother who hasn’t left her care home in years; a friend on the Space Station when you marry. They will appreciate the invitation, but decline: and it’s usual for those declining to send a present!

Finally the question of exes. On a day that will be packed with nerves, emotions, a bit of drama and no little drink in most cases, do you think it is a good idea to invite your exes? If you are confident in their behaviour, your own feelings, and the way that other guests will behave towards them (overhearing “He should never have split up with X” will hurt), then it’s your decision. Having been at a reception where the bride’s ex-husband attended, and was clearly deeply saddened by it all, again, it is not just about you.

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