We don’t live in a world where people marry their first kisses, said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert based in San Antonio. “Lots of people date lots of people these days,” she said. “We might have dated people at one time or another and now they are our neighbors, our dentists, our friends.” Online dating and the fact that people are marrying older have only added to this reality.
What this means for couples getting married is that when it comes time to drawing up the guest list, more people have to decide whether they will include past relationships or hookups in their festivities.
This can be a tricky, sensitive issue for both the couple and the past partner, according to Ms. Gottsman. “There really aren’t any definites,” she said. “It is subjective based on the feelings of the couple and the circumstances.”
Paul Hwang, a 24-year-old Marine at Quantico, married his wife, Rayliene Hwang, on July 7, 2017, in an apple orchard in Sacramento. He had met her through a close male friend who had dated her. Despite that tricky situation, they were still friends, and Mr. Hwang asked him to be his best man.
“I’ve heard of a lot of weddings where it’s like you went on one date with this person, so you can’t invite them,” he said.
“But for me, even knowing that they probably had a sexual relationship when they were dating, it is in the past. You can’t hold someone accountable for what they did. A kiss is just a kiss.”
Rachel Sussman, a marriage and relationship therapist in New York, said a good test for deciding whether an ex should be invited is whether that person has been part of the life of the couple.
“Most couples when they get engaged, they’ve been dating for two, three or four years,” she said. “If someone all of a sudden says, ‘I want to invite this person to my wedding,’ and their fiancé hasn’t met him or her, that’s weird to me.”
Even when the bride and groom are certain about their decision, it can be an emotional choice for the former partner.
Mr. Hwang’s friend ended up choosing not to come to the wedding after there was a misunderstanding about the date of the wedding. Ms. Hwang said it was probably for the best. “I think it would have been a diss if we didn’t even invite him at all,” she said. “But maybe it would have been a little awkward if he was there. I told him some intimate things about myself.”
Cristina Garcia, a 38-year-old dietitian and wellness consultant in Austin, Tex., who is happily married with children, was shocked when her high school sweetheart hand-delivered an invitation to his wedding. “I knew he was dating someone and they were serious, and I was happy for him,” she said. “But I never expected the wife would be cool with inviting me to the wedding.”
She attended and found the experience baffling. “The doors opened, the bride is there, and he was looking for me,” she said. “Our eyes locked. Then they continued with the ceremony, and I congratulated them after and watched them do their first dance. Maybe it was his version of closure.” She added that it was a moment she will never forget for her entire life.
Then there are the people left out of the festivities.
Jessica Birch, a 33-year-old special education teacher in Manhattan, felt isolated when she wasn’t invited to the wedding of an ex-boyfriend from college who ended up dating and later marrying a mutual friend. “We were all part of the same clique in our rowing club,” she said. “It was similar to any club where you have both guys and girls. You all just end up dating each other at some point.”
She found out she wasn’t invited to the wedding when other mutual friends inquired whether she was going. “I played it off not like I wasn’t invited but that I couldn’t make it,” she said. “I saw all my friends at the wedding on Facebook. It really sucked.”
While couples shouldn’t invite an ex to their wedding just because he or she may feel left out, there are some motivations that are more respectful and more kind than others.
“Are you all friends now and the bride or groom is just jealous? If that’s the case, that is a sign of bigger problems to come. That person is going to be jealous of co-workers and family members down the line,” Ms. Gottsman said. “If you’re making a declaration that this is a fresh start for us, we are keeping it limited to close family and friends, that is different.”
Of course, not every situation with an ex is tricky. When Laurel Niedospial, a 33-year-old freelance writer in Chicago got married on June 17, 2012, she had no hesitation about inviting her ex-boyfriend, who was already married to her close friend, to the wedding. “It’s funny,” she said. “I stopped thinking about him as an ex-boyfriend years before that.”
He ended up being useful. When there was miscommunication with the wedding planner about making arrangements for a s’mores bar, her ex picked up the skewers and ran the whole station, helping guests spread peanut butter and marshmallows on their graham crackers.
She had no doubt that she made the right decision in what could have been an awkward situation for others. “There were no feelings there,” she said of the former romance. “He managed to save the day.”