A wedding can be a newly sober person’s worst nightmare.
For starters, few events are more emotionally fraught than a wedding: Nerves and emotions are running high for everybody. Family members who haven’t seen each other in years intermingle, for better or worse. Strangers sit next to each other, making awkward attempts at small talk.
And then, of course, there’s all the free-flowing alcohol: Standing in line at the open bar can be immensely triggering if you’re in early sobriety. It simply might be too hard to ask for club soda with lime once you reach the front of the line and are surrounded by alcohol. (Then, of course, you still have to make it through the Champagne toast.)
Even those who’ve been sober for years find weddings to be a challenge. Michael Walsh, a recovery coach and interventionist, has been abstinent since 2004. Generally speaking, it doesn’t bother him to be around others who are drinking, but even he gets a little anxious when he gets invited to a wedding.
“It does cause me a certain level of anxiety to attend social events where there are a lot of people I do not know or if I am feeling out of my element or if there is a lot of drinking going on,” he told HuffPost.
Walsh usually makes a plan to be in attendance for a short period of time and checks in with himself along the way to measure how he’s feeling about being there.
“Sometimes I will look for someone who may not be drinking and hang out with them for a while if that feels comfortable,” he said. “But once I’ve congratulated the couple, if it does not feel right, then I simply leave and don’t feel bad about it.”
Though it’s wonderful that Walsh puts so much forethought into his plans, sober (and sober curious) folks like him would appreciate if couples planning weddings would be a little more considerate of their alcohol-free friends.
“Ultimately, nobody gets or stays sober in a cocoon — we all need a support system.”
What hosts don’t generally realize is that their sober guests often end up stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“When you’re newly sober, you think that your loved ones will be disappointed if you don’t show up, but you’re also worried that you’ll slip or be put into an awkward situation if you go,” said Irina Gonzalez, a sobriety advocate and certified health coach at Tempest, an online alcohol treatment program.
“This is a tension that sober folks can often experience, but our loved ones can certainly help bridge the gap,” Gonzalez said. “Ultimately, nobody gets or stays sober in a cocoon — we all need a support system.”
What’s more, it doesn’t take much to show some extra love and support to them on your big day.
Below, sober coaches like Gonzalez and Walsh offer their best advice for hosting a sober-considerate wedding.
1. Have some non-alcoholic beverages on hand.
You know how wedding invitations tend to have a vegetarian and/or vegan option these days? Try to apply that same mindset to your drink options, too.
Your best bet is to have a bottle of sparkling water and other non-alcoholic beverages on the table next to the bottles of red and white wine. This way your alcohol-abstaining guests don’t have to get up and stand in the bar line or dodge waiters with wine trays.
“Standing around empty-handed is awkward and difficult because servers will constantly come over to you and offer you wine when all you’re trying to do is get ahold of a non-alcoholic beverage so that they quit offering it to you,” said Amy Liz Harrison, a sober advocate and the author of “Eternally Expecting: A Mom of Eight Gets Sober and Gives Birth to a Whole New Life ... Her Own.”
“The little things make such a big difference so we don’t feel singled out or like we are causing extra work or being a pain,” she said. “Just having a non-alcoholic option available for the toast or on passed trays normally reserved for wine is such a nice gesture.”
You don’t have to get particularly inventive with your non-alcoholic choices, either, Gonzalez said.
“Some sparkling apple juice, plain or even flavored seltzer, and a non-alcoholic beer would be great,” she said. “I also enjoy having juice options because you can add a splash of seltzer to make it yummy.”
2. Don’t pressure anyone to drink.
You may know a person or two on your guest list who’s sober or a longtime Alcoholics Anonymous meeting attendee, but it’s impossible to know everyone’s status. There could be people in the crowd who are taking their first baby steps into sobriety, some in recovery and others still who are forgoing alcohol for the health benefits.
In acknowledgement of that, be respectful if someone says “No, thanks” when drinks come around. And absolutely avoid saying, “Don’t you just want one drink?”
“It may be really hard for someone to say ‘No, thank you’ or ‘I’m taking a break’ without feeling judged, shame or guilt,” Walsh said. “There is so much talk these days about alcohol consumption, and the truth is that many people are struggling in silence. I always encourage people to have empathy and put yourself in the shoes of someone who is conveying they don’t want a drink and to just leave it at that without pressuring.”
3. If you can, give them a plus-one.
If your alcohol-free friend is single, still try to give them the option of a plus-one like you would for a couple. It’s much easier to avoid alcohol during the celebration if you’re employing the buddy system, Walsh said.
“The other thing your guest could do is look for the non-drinker at an event ― they’re there! ― or offer to be a designated driver to some friends,” he said.
4. If someone in your bridal party is sober, give them an out on the smaller get-togethers.
Is your sober friend in your wedding party? When it comes to wedding activities, like the bridal shower and bachelorette parties, Gonzalez said she would recommend giving your sober bridesperson an out.
“I know that you love this person and want them to be there, but I find that those smaller, more intimate events can be a lot more awkward for someone who is trying to stay alcohol-free,” she said.
That’s because you can’t cater to them in every instance, and many of these events tend to be very booze-centric: What if everyone else wants to go on a wine tasting tour or [get] bottle service at a club?
“It’s OK if that’s what you want to do, but it’s also OK for your friend to miss this event,” Gonzalez said. “They would likely never ask, but giving them the option to not have to be the only sober person in a group of drunk bachelors at a party is a kindness that will surely be repaid in your future karma.”
5. But don’t not invite them.
Of course, still extend an invitation to your sober friend. It’s vital that recovering people are considered and included in the festivities because sobriety, especially early recovery, can feel incredibly alienating, said David Hampton, a certified professional recovery coach in private practice in the Nashville area.
“Recovering people have been encouraged not to isolate, to seek connection with others, to spend time around people whom they are happy to see and who are happy to see them,” he said.
When you say things like, “We just assumed that since it was probably such a big trigger for you that you wouldn’t want to come anyway,” you’re assuming that you know what’s best for someone. You’re also taking away your friend’s opportunity to connect on their terms, not yours.
“It may be that the recovering person has learned that their own drinking was their own problem and that they aren’t in charge of others and they would like to participate,” Hampton explained.
6. Ask if there’s anything you can do to make your sober guest feel more comfortable.
If your guest has told you they’re newly sober or in recovery, ask them if there’s anything you could do to make them feel more comfortable at the wedding, said Sonia Grimes, a recovery coach in Britain.
“Invite these open conversations with your loved ones well in advance of the event,” she said. “The more you both know about how your loved one is feeling and what they need on any occasion ― what their fears are, who they are worried about being stuck with ― the more opportunities you have to clarify and provide the specific support they need.”
Gonzalez offered this same bit of advice, too.
“You may not actually do everything they ask for, but this simple courtesy may go a long way,” Gonzalez said. “Plus, they may suggest an idea that you love and never would have thought of yourself!”
7. Be OK with them leaving early.
In his coaching practice, Hampton tells his newly sober clients to give themselves permission to attend weddings and other events as usual but to also go in with an exit strategy if they need one.
Acknowledge that your sober guest may have adopted a similar strategy if they duck out early, Hampton said.
“A strategy I used early on was to go to the event, have my Diet Coke and lime, congratulate the couple, walk around the room and make sure I talked to everyone I knew who was present and then quietly slip out,” he said. “By the time everyone else was on their second or third drink, they never missed me and everyone thought I attended the whole party.”
8. Don’t forget: This is a positive development in their lives.
Your sober friend will no doubt appreciate all you’ve done to make them comfortable at your wedding ― but don’t treat them like a child. The last thing your friend probably wants is for everyone to be walking on eggshells or excessively worrying about them in the middle of someone else’s wedding.
“When you’re newly sober, that sort of thing makes you feel like you’ve stepped backwards in time and have become a child who needs supervision and affirmation,” said Brandon Anthony, the founder of Santana’s Foundation and a recovery coach at Tempest.
You can turn this dynamic around by acknowledging that this is an empowered decision your friend is making ― something worth celebrating, not something to be bummed out about.
“It’s great to be cautious about taking shots, but generally people are excited about their decision to stop drinking,” Anthony said. “Help your friend celebrate that as often as possible, including on your wedding day.”