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How to Decline A Friend’s Invitation

Dear Steve,

My friend and I have been close for many years. However, my husband and I really dislike her husband; being in the same room feels like a chore and is emotionally exhausting. She is aware that I do not like her husband but she likes hosting Christmas dinner and insists we are like family and therefore should attend. The previous three years, I have been able to graciously decline, stating we had previous commitments. Earlier this year, she reminded me that Christmas was thirty-four weeks away and asked what would I like for dinner? I resent the idea of her asking me so soon and we really do not want to attend. How can I address this issue without losing her friendship?

Trying to Be Friendly

Dear Trying,

You do have a tough decision, but you have a couple of options for proceeding. The tough part is, as I see it, each option has a downside. While this is not an exhaustive list, the main point to realize is that you’re choosing a consequence bundle—a mix of positive, negative, shorter-, and longer-term consequences. In the end, you need to choose the bundle you feel you can live with. So, as with most important journeys, let’s start with a little detour.

How to Choose

Stay with me here, because what happens before you choose is usually the most important bit. This pre-choice will help you select which of the options is the best fit for you.
If you’re not careful, it will be easy to get sucked into an option that appeals in the short-term while going against what you really want in the long-term. Stopping to clarify what you really want allows you to fully explore the range of consequences bundled in any particular option. Doing this the right way usually requires thoughtfully asking (emphasis on the word thoughtfully here) three to four times, “What do I really want?” Your answer to this question will help clarify, up front, the type of strategy you’re looking for and make the selection process a little easier.

I’ve found it helpful to examine what it is I really want in terms of both the desired relationship and the results. Make sure to consider these two factors for you, for your friend, and for the relationship. If you decide you will decline the invitation, then proceed with the following options for gracefully doing so.

Option 1: The outright NO.
This one is the most direct, straightforward, and potentially damaging of the options. It involves telling your friend that you will not be accepting her invitation for dinner. It may also involve declining any and all future invitations to engage with your friend. The benefit of this easy response is counterbalanced with the high potential to sever all ties with your friend (whose only crime is being married to a person with whom you don’t want to spend time). It’s also hard to do when it comes right down to it because who really wants to say “no” when that means disappointing your friend.

This option doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, and yet, it may very well feel that way to your friend if you don’t take time to establish and reinforce safety with her—especially Mutual Purpose. You’ll want to make sure she understands that you’re not trying to sever all ties, AND that you’re not interested in spending time with her and her partner on Christmas Day. Establishing your commitment to seek a mutual purpose will be key, and the big barrier to this will be your friend’s insistence that your mutual purpose is to spend Christmas dinner together. She needs to know that you’re interested in finding one-on-one activities that provide an opportunity to foster the friendship.

Option 2: Only this ONCE!

While this option satisfies your friend, it does mean that you’ll be spending an evening managing your emotions. This option can also be tough because it’s never just once. By attending the dinner once, a precedent is established. Your friend learns that you are persuadable with the right mix of pre-notice and constant follow-up.
Now, there are good reasons that might pull you toward this option. After all, it sounds like it’s only once a year for the span of an evening. If the friendship is really valuable to you, and the only way you see to maintain that friendship is to occasionally endure her husband in small, controlled doses, then this bundle may be the right choice for you.

If you find yourself leaning toward this option, make sure you are very clear with yourself on acceptable amounts, types, and lengths of interaction with her and her partner. This will allow you to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries so as to avoid being roped-in to interactions that weigh on you.

Regardless of which option you choose, or even if you decide that a different option suits you better, remember to take time to reinforce your positive feelings for your friend and the value that you hold for your friendship. In the end, you’ll want to create the conditions under which this friendship has the best chance to continue forward, in whatever form that might take.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

16 thoughts on “How to Decline A Friend’s Invitation”

  1. carol Davison

    consider saying something like “Elizabeth you know that I love you, junior and missy; and going antiquing with you. However, Phillip grates on Bob and my nerves. we don’t want to spend long periods of time time with him. Christmas dinner, no. new years eve party with 40 other people, yes” expect her to be speechless, hurt, angry, etc. wait a moment, say “goodbye, i hope to hear from you later”. then let her get back with you after she has calmed down.

    1. stevewillisvs

      You make an interesting point Carol. Sometimes we take on the whole burden of maintaining the friendship. I think it’s valuable to recognize that both people need to be involved, and that we may need to shift some of the decisions about how to move forward back to your friend. It can be good to let them know how you feel and let them decide if they want to interact with you based on mutually beneficial terms.

  2. Thomas

    Friendship is a two-way street. The dislike for the friend’s husband should be evident to the friend by now. Why is there a pretense that the “elephant-in-the-room” does not exist?
    Part of friendship is being genuine in a kind way without the sugar-coating. The sticking point is the far-in-advance invitation. That issue has been politely-evaded in the past without any candor.
    I would start bluntly by asking my friend why there is such a strong “expectation” for us to be present. Then, I would describe why it feels like an expectation as well as specific behaviors that are repellent.
    Your friend has seen her spouse interact with others and “should not” be unaware of his effect on people.
    The far-in-advance clue makes her sound desperate. Is she trying to “lock you into” a commitment for some unknown reason?
    If you and your friend cannot handle the harsh truth in a pleasant way, the friendship will not last. It’s not all peaches and cream.

  3. Joan Williams

    The third option is the real truth. Let your friend understand that you and she are friends. You didn’t marry her husband, nor did she marry yours. You can have many shared outings together minus either spouse. You nor your husband should be forced to be prisoners on Christmas day. If your friend can not handle this truth, you need to find a more mature friend.

    1. Tonya

      I agree with Joan. There’s no reason the two of you cannot still be friends yet with an understanding that she would not need to put you in a position where you don’t need to spend time with her husband.

  4. Lavette Miller

    A mix is good. No to Christmas but yes to drinks and dessert a couple of times between now and then. You limit interaction duration but increase frequency, creating more opportunities to get to know each other. Maybe he is uncomfortable in groups and would do well in intimate settings. If the friendship is worth it, it doesn’t seem too much to ask.

    1. J. Nielsen

      Lavette, I like your approach of “a mix”. Steve’s suggestion “…finding one-on-one activities that provide an opportunity to foster the friendship” and/or maybe not accepting the dinner invitation but possibly arriving early for a drink and appetizers may help keep the friendship intact. But if all else fails, the last resort could be to get together twice a year for each other’s birthdays.

    2. stevewillisvs

      I like this idea, and I know that in the “thick” of the moment it’s sometimes hard to see other options.

  5. Josiah Mann

    Great articulation Steve. I love the approach of asking yourself what it is that you really want multiple times before responding. Very thoughtful.

  6. Scott

    Perhaps your friend needs you to help her with her husbands social skills; you could use all your crucial skills training to help him. If that feels like too much, invite them to meet you at Midnight mass, you wont need to talk and can spend one of the best parts of the Christmas with someone you love. It would be easy to escape after by saying “Merry Christmas, it was so great to see you both, but we have to be up early so we have to run”.
    Good Luck,

  7. George Iranon

    I would explain that our family is reserving this special day for spending time with just our family.

  8. Lisa

    It’s strange that she is pressuring you so far in advance to spend Christmas together, especially since many people have multiple family obligations during the holidays. Why not say that while you appreciate the invitation, you and your husband are [insert excuse here] but that you would love to catch up with her [insert alternate option here]. No need to be hurtful. Just stress that you value her friendship and present options that work for you.

  9. Greg

    This one seems to wander into the limited options trap VitalSmarts helps me avoid. There are better options, including saying no, talking about the WHY you’re saying no (assumption is that friend knows how much you don’t like her husband, but she may not!) and suggesting other ways to continue the friendship.

  10. Mike K

    Let’s look at it another way. This very good, long-time friend is giving 34 weeks notice so the other couple can find 2 areas of common ground so that they could spend about .04% of a year together. Really, that can’t be done? And seriously, during the 4 hours out of the 8760 hours in a year, this “offensive individual” will not be talking or offending in its entirety. No, I’m not guilting anyone into doing anything. There’s enough of that going around already. However, there is great learning and growth in trying to understand the un-understood. There is new perspective gained in hearing another’s views, especially when they are so different from our own. There’s a reason why some people are difficult: ever stop to ask why? And at the end of the evening, if you didn’t learn anything, then you learned you are doing what is right for you and you can go home happy. But you may go home wiser.

  11. Mark Ehlers

    The writer and her husband dislike the spouse but she doesn’t identify the offending behavior other than it’s a “chore” and “emotionally exhausting.” Perhaps the writer and her husband should step back and examine their own behavior toward the spouse to ensure that they are not contributing to the behavior, in other words, sending him to silence/violence. I’ve found throughout my life that many people are reacting not acting. If they can identify the source or cause of the offending behavior then perhaps they can work on strengthening or changing that relationship.

  12. Jennifer

    Mum never forgave her bestie’s husband for his behavior toward his wife–never physically harmful but often emotionally abusive. In this case, though, the bestie cottoned on to the mutual dislike. The two ladies made their own good times for years by going to plays and visiting with just each other, sans men. Mum treasures those memories now. I hope your writer finds other ways to spend time with her friend that don’t involve the offensive husband.

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