Illustration of a wedding cake with coronavirus decorations on it
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
health wellbeing

How to Say No to a 'Socially Distant' Wedding or Other Major Life Ritual

It's difficult to believe that people are insisting it's fine to attend their in-person celebration because "everyone will be wearing masks"—and to talk to them about why you won't be there.
12 May 2020, 4:55am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Wedding season is nigh. Typically, this time of year is marked by a lot of big asks: Will you be in my wedding party? Chicken or beef? What do you mean, “I don’t want to wear a tiara with a penis on it???” But in the midst of a pandemic, you would expect things to be different. Now that travel, buffets, and nanas hanging out with babies are all non-starters—and hugging and dancing with people you haven’t seen in years before traveling back to your respective cities could be deadly—you could reasonably assume that you’re off the hook for at least the summer months.

You’d be wrong.

A reader recently sent me this request for advice: “Two of my friends are getting married and have invited a handful of guests (some from out of state) to physically attend the ceremony in front of their home. It seems like they want this ceremony to be as close to a ‘real’ wedding as possible in the middle of a pandemic. How do I say no to them on their ‘big day’?”

Sadly, this isn’t the first story I’ve heard about couples trying to make something other than a virtual wedding work right now. In some instances, the guests would just have to drive across town; in others, they’d have to travel a longer distance by car or plane.

While I get the impulse to have an in-person celebration right now—I really, really do—the answer is no.

Before we get into how to say no, let’s talk about why a friend might be pushing this or any similar event, because I think having that in mind will help you muster the empathy needed to gracefully decline the invite. I have a lot of sympathy for anyone who has had to cancel or dramatically re-think a major life ritual because of the pandemic. Graduation, prom, births, funerals, and, yes, weddings matter.

For a lot of people, a wedding isn’t “just a party.” It’s a coming of age ceremony, a way to acknowledge the beginning of a new phase of life. It’s the forming of a new family unit via a very public ritual that forces couples—and their families of origin—to grapple with their values and their ideas about love, money, social standing, gender roles, personal expression, and aging. As my friend Terri Pous once said, “It’s basically an emotional and logistical version of American Ninja Warrior, disguised as a party.”

Even if it were "just a party," it would still be a fairly significant one. A “normal” wedding in the U.S. these days is typically planned at least one year out, costs thousands of dollars, and involves hiring a half-dozen or more professionals. Most of us wouldn’t get on a plane for any party, but we do it for weddings because we’re operating from the shared notion that this particular celebration is a big deal. That expectation might change someday—a lot of people certainly hope it will—but weddings matter has been a widely accepted cultural belief for a long time, and remains one at present.

It’s also not unreasonable to want to be married right now. As this pandemic and the economic fallout continues, more and more couples are going to consider getting married so one can get on the other’s healthcare, or for other financial reasons. Being able to make major medical decisions for an incapacitated partner—instead of, say, having to let their estranged parent do that—remains a significant legal right that marriage confers. Add to that the fact that we’re all pretty desperate for joy and good news these days, and it’s not unreasonable to really, really want a special day full of love and flowers and familiar faces during this monotonous and dark time.

(Even if you suspect that the engaged people in your life—or know for certain—are doing this because they are selfish and demanding and/or really just want attention, it doesn’t really matter for our purposes here.)

I say all this not to imply, “...and that’s why it’s OK for the affianced to insist all their college friends get on a plane and come kiss them on the mouth!” but to help the baffled would-be guest better understand where their loved one’s misguided idea to gather people together IRL might be coming from.

That said: It’s simply not acceptable for people to risk their lives—or ask their loved ones to risk theirs—just because they are deeply, understandably disappointed about having to cancel a wedding and have decided they don't actually have to. And that that urgency doesn't mean just having a virtual wedding (which could be special and meaningful in its own right), but an in-person "celebration of love," aka contagionfest.

So, where does this leave you, the friend who still has to give them the answer they don’t really want to hear?

To some degree, that depends on the friendship. (This is also true for saying no to a wedding invite in non-pandemic times, by the way.) If you aren’t that close to the person, your answer can be shorter and doesn’t need to include as much in the way of an explanation. If you’re dealing with a lifelong best friend or sibling, you should probably put more thought into what you’re saying and think about offering to help them plan a meaningful virtual ceremony. If the person inviting you is an established shitbird, you can tweak the below to be shorter and terser, and you should feel free to communicate your frustration and disapproval if they continue to push the issue. And if your partner is the person who was invited—that is, you’re the plus-one here—then it’s their job to have this convo.

What to say to the more casual friend:

  • “I’m honored you want me to be there with you on such a special day, but I am not going to be able to attend, given what we know about the coronavirus and how it spreads. I’m taking every precaution these days, and that means not seeing anyone who I don’t live with—not even from six feet away. To be honest, I’m worried that if you go forward with this as planned, you or [fiancé's name] or a guest could get really sick, or get a bunch of other people really sick. I’m really sorry that you’re in this position, though, and I wish things were different.”

What to say to the really close friend:

  • “I’m honored you want me to be there with you on such a special day, but I am not going to be able to attend, given what we know about the coronavirus and how it spreads. I’m taking every precaution these days, and that means not seeing anyone who I don’t live with—not even from six feet away. To be honest, I’m worried that if you go forward with this plan, you or [Fiancé's name] or a guest could get really sick, or get a bunch of other people really sick. I know how much you two care about your family and friends, so I am actually a little surprised to hear that you are planning to do this; it’s the kind of thing that could easily turn into a major tragedy. I care about you a lot, so I hope you know that this isn’t a decision I’m making lightly. If there were any way to make it work, I’d be all-in. And if you’re willing to consider switching to a virtual wedding for the time being, I’d love to help you plan it and find ways to make it feel really special. In any case, I’m really sorry you’re in this position; it sucks so much, and I wish things were different.”

Finally, know that saying no might seriously wound this friendship. That doesn’t mean you should say yes—I’m sorry to be a teacher in an after-school special, but… giving in to friends who want us to do things that put our lives’ or other people’s lives at risk is never a good idea, and you really don’t want to be friends with someone who would ask that of you.

Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.