BONUS WWMUD: Bridesmaid boundaries
How to set and hold boundaries around your time, money, and energy as a bridesmaid or maid of honor
Wedding season is upon us, so this is a special bonus issue available to all! I have been answering your questions on Instagram for many years, and am now turning your questions into my new member-only advice column here on Substack. To see all of my advice, be able to submit your own questions for a personalized response, and gain access to the full XOMU archives, upgrade your subscription today! It’s just $6 for the month, or $60 for the year—a small price to pay for knowing exactly what to say to set a boundary with your overbearing mother-in-law, pushy friend, or gaslighting co-parent.
While I was writing The Book of Boundaries, I received a question from a community member on Instagram. She wrote:
“A newly engaged friend just asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. I was honored and accepted, but then I realized her plans far exceed my financial means. She wants all of us to travel back east to her Mom’s for the shower, then plan another trip to Vegas for her bachelorette party. I’d also need to buy an expensive bridesmaid gown, not to mention a wedding present. I can’t keep up, but I don’t want to let her down. What should I do?”
This is technically a boundary conversation—"here is my limit based on my finances”—but it’s delicate given the circumstances. It’s an honor to be asked, and of course you want to be there for her in every way possible, but your finances (and perhaps time constraints, given all of the traveling expected of you) are very real limitations.
Any major life can present a challenge when it comes to our relationships with loved ones, whether you’re asked to host a baby shower, attend a destination anniversary party, travel for a graduation ceremony, or attend a child’s bar mitzvah. We want to share in these major life moments, but what if we’re being asked to spend more money than we can, travel far distances, or spend more time than our schedule allows?
These asks can lead to stress, resentment, and hurt feelings on both sides if you don’t address them head-on. As always, a clear, kind conversation held far in advance of the event in question can help to clarify their expectations and your capacity.
Get clear on your limits
To respond to your particular question directly: First, I recommend that you spend some time thinking about what you can and are willing to do for your friend’s wedding. If you don’t know your own limits, it will be impossible to set an effective boundary, and you’ll be more likely to agree to something you can’t actually support under pressure.
Here are some questions to help guide you through that thought process:
If you can’t accommodate two trips—the shower and the bachelorette party—can you attend one, or are both off the table? Would you be able to travel to either if you shared a hotel room with another bridesmaid, or someone donated their air miles?
How much are you able to comfortably spend on a bridesmaid’s gown? This might be a good time to poll the other bridesmaids, as you may all have similar limits.
Will you be able to contribute to the cost of the shower and/or bachelorette party, and if so, how much can you afford?
Can you help to plan the shower and/or bachelorette party, even if you aren’t able to contribute financially?
If you do continue as her bridesmaid, will that count as your wedding gift?
Share your limits honestly
Once you have an understanding of what you can contribute to, talk to the bride during a relaxed moment. Explain that you’d love to be there for her in every capacity, but now that you’re hearing more about her hopes and dreams, you are unable to devote the financial resources necessary to support every aspect of her wedding. You can then offer her the choice: “If you want me to be your bridesmaid, I’d love to, but now that I’ve heard your plans, we need to talk about what I’m reasonably able to do. If, after that, you want a different experience, I would understand if you asked me to step down. I want you to have exactly what you want for your wedding, and I won’t take it personally.”
Since you’re coming into the conversation knowing exactly where your limits are, feel free to spell them out in detail:
“I can’t travel for both the shower and the bachelorette—is one event more important to you? I can do some research to see if I can find inexpensive airfare and split a hotel room with someone.”
When it comes to the dress: “I can afford to spend $250 on a dress—how do you feel about us buying something off the rack instead of through a bridal store? I’ve been looking at ASOS and they have some great dresses at a reasonable cost.”
When it comes to planning and financial contributions: “I’d love to help organize the bachelorette, but I’d have to keep it low-key. If you’re thinking shows, clubs, and VIP pool parties, I’ll have to skip it.” Or “I’d love to help plan and organize the shower, but I can’t contribute to the cost.”
As for a wedding gift, don’t bring that up just yet—you can figure that out later, once you know your involvement with the wedding.
It may feel uncomfortable to speak so plainly about your limits, but this is the kindest thing you could do for your friend and your relationship. By clearly spelling out your boundaries, you’ll ensure that you can support your friend in a way that feels comfortable and healthy for you, which is good for your friendship, and shows that you value her hopes and dreams for this important event.
Accept the outcome gracefully
After you’ve explained your situation in an open and honest way, the decision is in the bride’s hands. If she wants her bridesmaids with her through every aspect of her wedding, she’ll either have to scale back her plans, find a way to support you through them (does she have extra air miles, or can you stay with her at her mom’s house?), or select someone else for this duty.
If your friend agrees to adjust her expectations to include you—what a relief! You are now free to support your friend in a way that doesn’t cause you stress or hardship, free to truly enjoy all of the events you attend, and free to enjoy and appreciate this new level of value and trust in your friendship.
If she does choose to ask someone else to be her bridesmaid, that’s still a win, because now you’re free to bow out gracefully knowing you did as much as you could to support her, she is free to have exactly the event she wants, and you’ll still experience the same feelings of value and trust in your friendship. If this is how it shakes out, please do accept her decision with warmth and grace. Even if it stings a bit in the moment, ultimately it will be better for you and your friendship if you don’t put yourself in a position where you have to spend more than you have, or where you’re not able to be the bridesmaid your friend needs you to be.
Tips for boundaries for any special event
There are common themes in this WWMUD boundary edition that you can apply to any special event in which you’re asked or expected to play a role, from organizing to financially contributing to attending.
Get clear on your own limits. If you enter into these conversations with just a squishy sense of, “This is asking a lot” or “I can’t afford all of this,” you won’t be able to effectively set the boundaries you both deserve. Make a list and be specific about what you can and cannot comfortably do for this event, and let those be your boundary guidelines.
Speak your limits clearly and kindly. Make sure to use “I” statements, like “I can’t take that much time off work,” instead of “you” statements like, “You expect me to take a whole week off work.” Share your limits honestly, even if you don’t get into personal details. It’s okay to say, “I can’t afford a trip right now,” without getting into your personal financial situation.
Don’t fudge your reasons. This is a bonus tip that didn’t apply to the above scenario, but if you just don’t want to attend or participate—just say that, but kindly, please. (Because if you say you can’t afford to fly and they offer you their Skymiles, you’re stuck.) Try, “Thanks for inviting me, but I can’t join you that weekend. I’ll be sure to send the graduate a card, though.” And yes, if you are able, send a small gift where appropriate.
Accept the outcome gracefully. If you’ve established your own limits and communicated them clearly and kindly, their reaction or decision is not your business. If they choose to dis-invite you, realize that is their boundary to set, so they can have the event of their dreams. And if they’re mad because you can’t meet their expectations—OH WELL. That’s not your problem, because you should not have to sacrifice your own mental health, job security, or financial health just to make someone else happy.
Finally, go into these conversations assuming the best. In most cases, your conversation partner will be grateful and touched that you were open and honest about your limits, and gracefully respect what you are and are not able to do. In all cases, regardless of the outcome, setting the boundary here will improve your relationship—whether it’s your relationship with that person or your relationship with yourself, because you prioritized your own health and happiness exactly as you deserve.
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Melissa Urban has been helping people set and hold boundaries since 2009 (the earliest days of Whole30), and is absolutely not a therapist. If you have a question for WWMUD, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or reply to this email. (Open to Subscribers only. Founding Member questions take priority, so please identify yourself as such in your email!)
Be forewarned, I'm about to sound like an old lady, "Back in my day...." When I got married (14 years ago) my bridesmaids were involved in these decisions. Having my people with me during these events WAS the experience I wanted. Certainly, this friend (the bride), might gracefully say either - oh, I would so much rather you be there, I'm happy to make xyz adjustments OR I hear you and I get it, but xyz are really important to me and I also don't want you to push your limits, so it might be best if you step down. I think either outcome is great. What I don't understand and have see a lot of posts on are brides who create a difficult agenda, demand it be followed and then get angry if someone can't / doesn't want to. I don't feel like you can have it both ways.