This topic comes up all the time on this board. I'm glad people ask, but I thought it might be helpful to have a solid FAQ on the subject. Please let me know if I have any mistakes, if anything needs clarification, or if I'm missing some other good questions.
I'll be using a guest named Bob as an example. Bob will either be in a relationship with Riley, or he'll be single and would like to bring Alex as a guest.
What is the difference between a significant other and a "plus one?"
A significant other is the person that Bob is in a relationship with (spouse, fiance(e), girlfriend, boyfriend, life partner). If Bob is not in a relationship, he has no significant other, and is a truly single guest. A "plus one" is the guest of Bob that he brings to your wedding. It's a person of his choice, and can be a romantic date, a sibling, a parent, or a friend.
Major differences are that you need to invite significant others, and you don't need to offer guests the option to bring plus ones.
Who do I send the invitation to? How do I address the invitation?
You would send the invitation to the person who is your primary guest (Bob). If Bob and Riley are dating, address it to both of them by name. If Bob is single, and you are giving him a plus one, you send it to Bob "and Guest." When Bob RSVPs, if he invites his guest Alex, he should include his name on the RSVP.
(Please note: If you have inner and outer envelopes, you would address them to Bob alone if he is single or does not live with Riley. Then, in the inner envelope, you would include Bob's name and Riley's name, or Bob's name "and Guest.")
I am on a serious budget/I have limited space. I need to cut my guest list. I want to invite Bob for sure, but I don't have room for Riley. Is it okay to just invite Bob?
But they're not married!
They're not engaged!
They're not living together!
They've only been together for X months!
They've broken up twice in the past! TWICE! How can this be true love?
Listen. You might be a really shrewd observer of other people's personal lives. You might be a relationship expert. You might be trying to be as fair as possible about deciding who can bring a significant other. But you can't have a relationship cut-off like this.
When you invite a person and don't allow them to bring a significant other, you are implying, implicitly or explicitly, intentionally or unintentionally, that you don't consider their relationship valid or serious enough to warrant an invitation as a couple. When you invite significant others as long as people are engaged or married, you're telling those couples who have been together years and don't want to get married yet, "Your relationship isn't as valid as these other ones." When you invite people who have been together at least a year, you're telling that couple that's been together for 6 months and just signed a lease, "You're just not as serious a couple to me."
It's very hurtful and sad to be in a relationship and not have other people recognize the validity of your relationship. It's even worse when the person who doesn't acknowledge the validity of your relationship is going to be celebrating the validity of THEIR relationship.
What about my 14-year-old cousin who wants to bring her boyfriend?
One big exception to "all significant others:" it's only required for adults (18 and older). You are welcome to make exceptions (for example, you might let your 17-year-old cousin bring her girlfriend), but you don't have to.
Okay, but I would totally be okay and understanding if I had to be invited somewhere without my significant other. We're all adults here! Can't we just suck it up for a few hours?
Just because you would be okay and understanding about the situation does not mean that all of your guests will be. Many of them may be very upset, even if they don't let you know they're upset. And again, consider that you're judging people's relationships as not-valid-enough on a day where you're asking all of your guests to acknowledge the validity of your relationship. It's hard for me to be happy for you on your wedding day when my partner had to stay home because he wasn't invited.
But we don't want strangers at our wedding! Do we have to let people bring significant others we've never met?
Yes, you need to invite significant others, even if you haven't met them. This is a real person that your guest is in a relationship with; the relationship is just as real and serious and valid as it would be if you had met the significant other.
But we REALLY do have a budget/limited space. We must cut the guest list. What can I do?
Cut couples. Seriously. It's rude to invite one half of a couple. It's not rude to have a small guest list. If you absolutely cannot cut your guest list any more than you already have, then you either need to increase your budget or find a bigger space.
I really hate Riley for [reasons]. Can I just invite Bob?
No. Just like you're not required to know Riley for her relationship with Bob to be valid, you don't have to LIKE her for it to be valid either. If you dislike Riley so much that you cannot stand the thought of inviting her to your wedding, then do not invite Bob either.
The exception to this is if the reasons you don't want to invite Riley are very serious and violence related, and you desperately want to invite Bob, or feel like it's inappropriate to not invite him. If Riley has threatened you, your partner, or your friends and family, shown physical aggression, perpetrated violence against you or other guests in the past, etc. etc., then you have a really good reason not to invite her.
If this is really the case, and you feel uncomfortable leaving Bob off your guest list (for example, if Bob is your beloved uncle who is like a father to you and Riley used to abuse you), then you need to talk to Bob about the situation. And you need to be prepared for Bob to say that he'd rather not come if Riley is not invited.
What do I do if Bob is single until two weeks before the wedding?
Instead of trying to come up with an arbitrary cut-off that depends on how serious you think a couple is, your cut-off is going to be 6-8 weeks before your wedding. Once your invitations go out, it's not fair for guests to hold you responsible for adding more people to the guest list, so if a new relationship starts during that time, you have our blessing to say, "Sorry" if Bob calls you up to say, "I have a new significant other!" two weeks before the wedding.
What if Bob is dating Riley when the invitations go out, and then they break up?
This situation gets a little more gray, but it's usually really manageable. If Bob is your primary guest (he's the person you wanted to invite; Riley would not be invited if you weren't inviting Bob), then he should assume that he is still invited. Riley should assume that she is not invited. It's easy to get super stressed about the possibility of Riley deciding to come to the wedding (she WAS invited, after all), but it's highly unlikely unless you were also close enough to Riley that you WOULD have invited her even if you weren't inviting Bob. Basically, don't stress about this. Unless you and Riley are also very close, she likely will not want to come to the wedding.
If Bob and Riley break up after invitations go out, and Riley isn't coming to the wedding, do I have to let Bob bring someone else?
You don't have to, especially if you're on a budget, and/or if no other single guests can bring a plus one. It's often a nice guesture, though, especially if Bob is going to be sitting with a lot of couples, or if he's really hurting from the break-up. It's entirely up to you.
If I send an invitation to Bob and Riley, can Bob RSVP for himself and Alex?
No. Invitations are not tickets to events; they are non-transferrable. You decide who you want to invite to your wedding; random people can't just show up and crash (I mean, they can crash your wedding, but that's what security is for). If Bob RSVPs for Alex when he was invited with Riley, call him up and talk to him.
I have no idea if Bob is in a relationship. Can I send him an invitation address to him "and Guest?"
Mostly no. First of all, "and Guest" means he can bring anyone he wants as a plus one, even if he's in a relationship. So he could be dating Riley and RSVP for himself and Alex, and you would need to honor that. Second of all, it feels really cruddy to get an invitation addressed to you "and Guest" when you're in a relationship. I know from experience.
So what can you do? Make an effort to find out if Bob has a significant other; you can always directly ask him. If you're too shy for that, try checking social media or asking family or mutual friends. Make the effort for real: It's better to have to ask Bob if he's in a relationship than to just assume he isn't.
If you've exhausted EVERY effort and you still have no idea if Bob is in a relationship, then you can either send him an invitation addressed just to him, or (if you're prepared for him to bring anyone he wants) address it to him and a guest.
Bob is single, and he's in the wedding party. We can't afford to let single guests bring plus ones. Do we need to let Bob bring a guest?
You do not need to let single members of the wedding party bring guests. However, it's strongly recommended if you can manage it, and it's usually considered okay to let wedding party members bring plus ones even if you're not letting all guests bring them.
Bob is in the wedding party, and he's bringing Riley/Alex. We have a head table. Do I need to seat Riley/Alex at the head table?
Here's where tradition and etiquette conflict. A traditional head table does not include significant others or plus ones of the wedding party members. However, it's very rude to seat a couple apart (whether they're two people in a relationship or a wedding guest and their plus one). If you want to have a head table, seat your wedding party members next to their guests. After all, you will not spend very much time with them at the table (you're going to be up and about almost the entire night when you're not eating), so it makes sense to seat them with the person they came with.
Many couples choose to have a sweetheart table or a King's table instead of a head table so that they don't have to choose between having a traditional head table and being courteous to wedding party guests.
Bob is single. We'd like to give him a plus one, but we REALLY don't like Alex and would prefer it if Bob brought someone else. How can we handle this?
You have two options: either don't give Bob a plus one, or accept that he can bring Alex if he wants to. Sorry. Once you write, "and Guest," you no longer get a say in who the guest is.
Again, the one exception is if Alex has been threatening or violent towards you or other guests. If that's the case, if Bob RSVPs for himself and Alex, call him up and explain the situation. Again, be prepared for Bob to be upset and decline the invitation.
Bob is single. We can't afford/don't have space to give single people plus ones. How do we let Bob know that he can't bring a plus one?
You send him an invitation addressed only to him. If you have RSVP cards that say, "We have reserved ___ seat(s) in your honor," you write "1." Please do not write anything on your invitation, RSVP cards, or wedding website telling people that they cannot bring plus ones unless otherwise indicated on their specific invitation. Please assume the best of your guests!
But what if he RSVPs for himself and Alex?
Call him up and explain that the invitation was just for him, and that you can't afford/don't have space for plus ones. Be polite.
We can't afford/don't have space to give all single people plus ones. Is it okay to let some people bring guests, but not others?
Yes. We recommend giving plus ones in circles. Basically, if you're letting one single member of the wedding party bring a guest, it's good etiquette to allow all single members of the wedding party to bring a guest. If you're letting some of your single high school friends bring a guest, it's nice to let all of your single high school friends bring a guest. Etc. etc.
It's also a nice gesture to let guests bring plus ones if they're traveling from out of town (a guest means company while traveling and a person they can split hotel/rental car costs with), if they don't know many/any people at the wedding besides the couple, or if you know you would like to seat them at a table with a lot of couples.
We're on a budget/have limited space, so I need to make a guest list in advance. Obviously, some single people might not be single by the time the invitations are sent out. How can we account for new relationships while making our guest list so far ahead of time?
When you write up your guest list, list all significant others as you go, and give any single guests a plus one (I write it into my spreadsheet as "Guest" and "Guest +1"). While it's all but guaranteed that your final guest list will be smaller (even if you do let single guests bring plus ones), this way you can be confident that you won't be surprised with new relationships.
Due to budget/space, we did not let all/any single guests bring plus ones. Now the RSVPs are rolling in and we've gotten enough declines to let single guests bring plus ones. Would this be B-listing?
No. It all comes down to this question: "Is this a person that you would be inviting if they weren't a plus one?" There is a difference between, "Well, we got enough declines, Bob, so come to our wedding!" and, "Hey, Bob, if you'd like to bring someone to our wedding, we just wanted to let you know there's room."
See the difference? Bob's your guest; the plus one is Bob's guest. His guest isn't someone you were going to invite anyway (if they were, you'd already have invited them).
Why is this even important? Who cares? Shouldn't my guests just be happy for me on my wedding day? If our guests really love us, they'll just be happy for us and glad to attend, even without their significant other.
Welcome to the Etiquette board, where we're working hard to help everyone practice good etiquette. The purpose of etiquette is to be polite and fair to all of your guests. Even if you're a bride or groom, you're creating an event for your guests; their enjoyment is a priority. You are inviting them to an event so they can celebrate with you. Attending your wedding should be an honor you're bestowing, not a privilege they must sacrifice for. If you treat it like a privilege, as if they should just be grateful you invited them, then you're less likely to have a wedding people will really like. If you treat it like an honor, as if you're excited to host them, you're more likely to look out for their comfort and well-being.
And if your guests love you enough to not care if you invite their significant others, I hope that you love your guests enough to invite their significant others in the first place. It's a two-way street.