Weddings came back with a vengeance this summer, and let’s be honest: It had been kind of nice to see people elope for a while. So cheap. So quiet. So little pressure on friends and family. You could just send a gift instead of making small talk with strangers and eating country club shrimp. But then all those postponed weddings were rescheduled and suddenly people were buying plane tickets to upstate New York and Sedona and Lake Champlain. For introverts, cheapskates, and other unsung heroes in America, the 2021 wedding season could feel a bit unwelcome.

Being in a bridal party–whether you’re the bridesmaid, junior bridesmaid, honorary bridesmaid, or maid of honor who is planning the best Las Vegas bachelorette party of all time–can be stressful. It’s good stress, usually, but it’s still stress. So how can you establish healthy boundaries during wedding season and still contribute to a presumably joyful occasion? Here are some tips for protecting your mental health while maintaining proper wedding etiquette.

A Divorcee Explains Why Weddings Are Important

As a divorced person, I’m generally super cynical about weddings. I frequently have to remind myself why wedding days matter. A wedding ceremony is an earnest symbol of something larger: love, community, the past’s connection to the future. It’s a cultural touchstone. A rite of passage. A wedding can be uplifting and wholesome, despite the fact that consumer culture tries to turn it into an impersonal spending frenzy. The glossy magazines insist that a wedding must cost at least a million dollars and be the most magnificent day of your life, but plenty of couples don’t fall for the hype. They just want the people they love the most to witness their marriage vows

And that’s a really nice thing! So let’s give brides and grooms the benefit of the doubt. They’re in the wedding game for all the right reasons. The infinite Godiva chocolate fountain was handed down through countless generations of the bride’s family, and she really can’t do without it.  

A Bachelorette Done Right

Years ago my little brother’s wife graciously invited me to her destination bachelorette party at a massive beach house with a bunch of gorgeous women in their 20s. I said yes, even though I was an old lady, unemployed, codependent, anxious in large groups, with a nursing baby and a baby daddy at home. And I loved the entire occasion. Why?

  1. The bride’s sister handled all the financials so no one had to worry about money until we divvied up expenses at the end of the trip. And we all ended up paying less than we’d budgeted. 
  2. I could drive to the beach, so I didn’t have to buy a plane ticket.
  3. We took turns doing the grocery shopping and meal prep. 
  4. We only played one official game and gave one small, meaningful gift. 
  5. My sister and another sister-in-law (both moms as well) were there, so I had people to commiserate with when I missed my kid.
  6. I got to know my awesome sister-in-law by seeing her relax and revel with her best friends in the world. 

The bachelorette party was fun and authentic. Even though my sister-in-law was central to the festivities, the party still made room for me. I didn’t feel pressured to have sorority house stories or take Jager shots. I even went to bed early every night. If I’d said no to the trip, I would’ve genuinely missed out. 

But wedding-adjacent events aren’t always like that. Sometimes the bride wants everything to be perfect (reminder: impossible). Sometimes the expenses and expectations are just too much of an individual burden. Sometimes you feel that you’re being asked to be someone you’re not in order to fit into a wedding party. And at that point, you have to start saying no. 

How to Say No Within the Bounds of Friendship AND Wedding Etiquette

There’s no way around it: You’ve got to talk to your friend. You need to tell her exactly why you can’t do A, B, or C for her wedding. But here are the ground rules for that difficult discussion:

  • Put yourself in your friend’s shoes. How would you feel if you were on the other side of the conversation? Be empathetic to the bride’s wants and needs without sacrificing your own. 
  • Don’t say no by text or email. This calls for phone or in-person, one-on-one, at a calm moment. 
  • Say no as early as possible. You need to be mindful of the bride’s planning schedule and how many balls she’s juggling. Give her time to recover. Weddings are well-oiled machines, and an untimely declination, even if it’s for all the right reasons, can be devastating.
  • Be clear. Don’t give vague reasons for saying no. Be honest and upfront. For example, you can’t afford it, you can’t take the time off work, you need to prioritize your family, etc.
  • Make sure your reasons are legit. For example, if you can’t attend the bachelorette party because your controlling boyfriend will be jealous, that’s not okay. And you’re looking at a much bigger discussion. 
  • Be warm and loving. Remind your friend frequently that you’re happy for them and you want the very best for them.
  • Be apologetic. You’re truly sorry that you’re not equipped to do more at this time. You wish you could.
  • Be firm. Don’t back down at the first sign of tears. But be open to reasonable compromise.
  • Offer an alternative. Volunteer to do something more within your bandwidth, like be an usher at the wedding instead of the rehearsal dinner coordinator. There are loads of ways to offer support that don’t cost thousands of dollars. 
  • Take reciprocity into account. If you say no to their destination bridal shower, your friend will inevitably remind you of the time she hosted a pricey rehearsal dinner for you and your second husband Steve. Acknowledge what they’ve done for you. But don’t do something solely out of guilt or obligation because that’s not loving–to yourself or to your friend. 

The bride is going to be hurt and disappointed. That’s a given. Emotions run high around weddings anyway, and brides are fed a steady diet of ideals and expectations. Deviations from their presumed plan can be upsetting, even for easygoing brides. But you will both get through it. Friendships aren’t always easy, but even the difficult moments can reinforce your bond. 

If you can’t find a way out of the conflict, then consider friendship therapy. Much like marriages, friendships can heal and grow through relationship counseling. Shontel Cargill, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Thriveworks in Cumming, GA, says friendship therapy “can provide a safe space to articulate needs and work through grievances in a healthy and productive way.” (Or you could just send a really nice wedding gift and hope for the best?)

Finally, Some Advice for Flower Girls

Make it clear to the bride that if she makes you wear that dumb poofy dress and litter a church with rose petals in front of hundreds of people, she will severely regret it. She’s looking at an epic temper tantrum halfway down the aisle. And not a cute one that will go viral when guests pull out their phones. Bride: Consider yourself warned.