(Photo: Veronica Varos/Getty Images)
Two types of mail make my hands tremble like a bad actor playing the part of an unnerved person. One is anything marked with the return address of my landlord. The other is wedding invitations. “Please say ‘Jessica Gross and guest,’ please say ‘Jessica Gross and guest,’” I pray, reaching toward the envelope with my shaky claw.
Of course, it doesn’t. I’m 30 now, and have spent the majority of the past decade single. During this time, I’ve been invited to many weddings — almost always without a plus-one. The most stringent and malodorous rule I’ve heard: “No ring, no bring.” If your edict rhymes, that is a cue to pause, rephrase, and probably deregulate.
In the name of empathy and compassion, and with a nod to current social norms, I hereby declare this tradition preposterous. At weddings and other formal occasions — office holiday parties, your garden-variety banquet — every single adult should be invited with a plus-one. Period. If you have a tight budget, invite fewer people. I’m serious: I would rather not be a fringe-level invitee if it meant every adult could bring a plus-one if she chose.
Twice last year, I interviewed Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained social scientist who’s spent two decades researching single life in America. She coined the phrase “singlism” to denote the stereotyping of and discrimination against people who aren’t married. DePaulo describes herself as “single at heart”: “To be single at heart, I think, means that you see yourself as single. Your life may or may not include the occasional romantic relationship, and you may or may not live alone or want to live alone, but you don’t aspire to live as part of a couple (married or otherwise) for the long term.”
This self-identification reflects the expansive options of a culture in which marriage is no longer mandatory. We know how radically our demographics have changed over the past half-century; we know people now structure their relationships, families, and lives in ways that used to be unimaginable. In researching her most recent book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, even DePaulo was surprised by the range of ways in which people are building their homes and lives, like households shared by two single-parent families. “I think of myself as someone who is open to different ways of thinking, but it just never occurred to me that these kinds of combinations would happen,” she told me. “It’s so unbundled.” To insist that the only relationships that count at a wedding are those that mirror yours seems reactionary and narrow, and denies the multiplicity of ways in which people now love.
Yes, a wedding is about celebrating the union of two people, not about honoring the lifestyle and needs of every single guest. But I would argue that the more comfortable your guests are, the more joyful your wedding will be. Weddings are also about placing your relationship in the context of a community — that is, the community of your real friends and family, with the attendant realities of their lives — not a social world of your own design.
To be clear, I am not “single at heart.” I would much prefer to be in a relationship, and am unconflicted about my desire to marry and have a family. But I am fortunate and extremely grateful to have a wealth of meaningful relationships in my life — people whose company at a wedding would transform the event completely. In How We Live Now, DePaulo writes, “With little cultural celebration or even recognition, friendships have emerged as the essential twenty-first-century relationship.” With a companion, whether a friend, a new partner, or a sibling, you go from standing alone — observing the dance floor as the couples slow-dance, blinking away the middle school déjà vu — to having someone to confide in, or laugh with, or dance with (since of course you’ve brought someone who also loves to dance), or take a walk with when you feel socially overloaded. And then, recharged, you can really be there, present for your friends on their momentous day.
Look, I get it. There are space constraints; couples want to minimize the number of strange faces on their special day; weddings are expensive beyond my wildest dreams. In fact, I wondered if, despite our increasingly liberal social attitudes in some respects, plus-one offerings had decreased in recent years as weddings have become more and more exorbitant. (DePaulo has a phrase for that, too: “matrimania.”)
I called Harriette Rose Katz, president and founder of Gourmet Advisory Services, who has been a wedding and event planner for decades. She says that the plus-one rule is as it has always been. “If someone is seeing someone, I mean truly, seriously seeing someone, you invite them. If they’re just going out, ‘I want a date,’ you know — well then, sorry, we can’t do it,” she said.
But crucially, Katz advises that couples who must invite single people without plus-ones put effort into crafting a singles table. If you’re thinking, “the singles table?!” please be advised that I really like the singles table. It means that at least I’m among my people, that I’m not alone, that the couple has given even a modicum of thought to my experience at their event; it also means possibility. Indeed, Katz’s suggestion is born of compassion: She told me that before she was married for the first time, she went to a wedding alone. “I was lonely, bored, miserable, saying, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’"
The truth is that, granted the option to bring a friend or casual date to a wedding, I might not take it the majority of the time. If the mood is right, if I feel confident and think it’ll be a friendly crowd, I might even prefer to attend alone and chat it up with strangers. But this is personal, and the generous bride and groom would be wise to consider the possibility that this is not the case. When you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, it can be difficult to remember or imagine what it was like not to have a partner. Rather than guessing or assuming, ask your single friends what would make them comfortable. At one of the best weddings I ever went to, my empathetic friend, the bride, asked me beforehand which table I’d prefer. I chose the one full of literary types and a couple of single men. I ended up dating one of them; the relationship, while short-lived, was very important to me. And what meant a lot was that my friend wanted me to enjoy myself.
“This is a serious matter. You will have a crappy time if you don’t have someone,” Katz told me. “If you love your friend enough to invite your friend to a wedding, you want your friend to have a good time.” If, on the other hand, you’re not comfortable enough with your friend to have an honest, empathetic conversation with her, you’re probably not that close. Take her off the list. Give someone else a plus-one instead.