A week before his May 2007 wedding to Rosemary Hayden, Adam Gold got a surprise: an e-mail from a high school friend asking if he could bring an uninvited guest to their formal, nighttime nuptials at the chic State Room in Boston. "His exact words were, Yo, can I bring my girl?'" Adam says of the faux pas. "I got kind of upset. You're supposed to respect the bride and groom's guest list."
When compiling the always-tricky guest list, engaged couples struggle to decide who will bring a date to their wedding—while navigating a minefield of potential hurt feelings. In years past, every adult was invited with a guest, says Sharon Naylor, author of
, but as weddings grow pricier and young people stay single longer, there aren't set rules regarding plus-ones anymore. "The etiquette hasn't caught up," Naylor says. "You really are picking and choosing who gets to bring a guest, and that hurts people's feelings."
Many couples balk at having strangers present on the big day, sometimes to the chagrin of single friends. "To keep it more intimate, we wanted one of us to have a close relationship with everybody at the wedding," says Adam, who ultimately told his friend he'd have to come solo to the event, where guests dined on petit filet mignon and lobster ravioli against a backdrop of panoramic Boston Harbor views. "When he asked, it sounded like I was throwing a New Year's party and I'd sent him an Evite. I don't think he was taking my wedding very seriously."
In Jenna White's single days, she took it personally when her friends didn't invite her to their weddings with a guest; she thought the couple doubted her ability to find a date. "There was always a little twist of a knife to not be given that option," says the Chicago resident, who married Michael Beasley in June 2008. "It's that angst-y thing of thinking everyone else is going to find their match but me."
At her own nuptials, Jenna wanted to make sure her guests didn't experience the same pangs. She planned an intimate seaside ceremony on Florida's secluded Anna Maria Island, followed later that week by a New Orleans–themed reception at historic FitzGerald's nightclub in Berwyn, IL, to which each unattached guest was invited with a plus-one. "I really wanted everybody we love to be there and be their happiest," says the bride. "And if that meant bringing a guest, great."
As it turned out, only three people brought guests she and her husband hadn't met; the rest of the plus-ones were established significant others. "I have no regrets about our open policy," she says. "I just wanted to make everybody as comfortable as possible."
Not all couples have the space or inclination to invite everyone with a guest, and friends who are in relationships—but not engaged or married at the time—often present the most difficult dilemmas, as Connecticut native Sarah Lamm discovered. Sarah found the perfect location for her August 2008 wedding to Chris Barton near his home in England—a Victorian country house in the picturesque Chiltern Hills—but the venue held only 90 people.
After much thought, the couple extended "and guest" only to long-term partners they both knew well. That left a few nonsingle guests dateless—including one who lives with her boyfriend, and another who's in a serious relationship. To compensate, the couple worked hard to make the seating charts—and the wedding as whole—"group friendly," Sarah says. The extra effort paid off, "not only for those who came alone but also for the atmosphere of the wedding in general," she says. "There was a real feel of a reunion, with old friends able to spend time together."
It's important to keep guests' comfort in mind, says San Francisco–based wedding planner
. If a large group of fun-loving singles is invited to the wedding, you likely don't need to invite them with dates—after all, weddings can be great places to meet people. If you have only a few single friends, though, Nichols recommends inviting them all "plus one" if possible, so they can bring someone if it makes them more comfortable.
Nichols also suggests making a spreadsheet of the guest list and taking a realistic look at the number of single invitees; depending on the couple's ages, there may be only a few. By giving them each a plus-one, "you're not doubling your list—just doubling a small portion of your list," she said. "Chances are, the number may not be as scary as you anticipated."
There are times when offering an "and guest" can go awry: the groomsman who uses it as an opportunity to bring along a buddy, or a cousin who unexpectedly shows up at the reception with a sorority sister in tow. "It's really considered a don't," Naylor says of bringing a pal as your plus-one. The best way to head off wedding-day awkwardness is to do your research in advance. Find out significant others' names, and write them on the invitation instead of just "and guest." "That lets the guest know it's nontransferable," Nichols says. "If your friend and that person break up before the wedding date, it's not her and someone else."
If you're not sure which of your guests might be expecting a plus-one, it can be helpful to contact them for an update on their personal lives: You'll quickly get a sense of how serious things are. "Most problems can be solved with pure communication," Naylor says.
That's what Jenna discovered when her second cousin wrote "3–4 guests" on his RSVP card to her reception. When her father called asking him to be more specific, the cousin explained that he was hoping to bring along his children as well as a college friend. Jenna's answer was no—to the college buddy. "I didn't put up a stink about him inviting his kids, but I drew a line at the friend," Jenna says. "He took it fine. I think he figured it didn't hurt to try."
Bear in mind that just because you extend a plus-one invitation doesn't mean your guests will take you up on the offer. All of Adam's single attendants went stag, though they'd received plus-ones. "One of the groomsmen said he didn't want to bring someone random to an event that was special to him," Adam says. "For the most part, our friends were pretty respectful of that."