my boyfriend’s company doesn’t invite non-married partners to their holiday party

A reader writes:

The major hospital my boyfriend works for throws a swanky holiday party at a trendy restaurant downtown every year. We were both excited for me to meet all of his colorful coworkers, until he found out that only married employees are allowed to bring guests. This strikes me as really odd. It seems like either everyone should be able to invite a guest or no one should, or, at the very least, it should be based somehow on professional status, not marital status. Am I just being a whiny millennial, expecting invites and pats on the back when they aren’t justified? Or is this a weird company policy? I can’t help but wonder how this would feel if I were 35 instead of 25, and the only unmarried person in my cohort, or if I were a dateless manager chatting with the husband of my married 23-year-old assistant, or recently divorced… This list goes on.

I know as far as work problems go, this isn’t a bad one, and I would never ask my boyfriend to insist I be invited or anything crazy, but I really want to know: Are my expectations too high? Or is this in poor taste?

The short answer: Nope, this isn’t that unusual.

I’ll give you a longer answer too, but first I need to address the idea that this would be especially bad for a dateless or recently divorced manager who ended up chatting with the husband of her 23-year-old assistant. Because … it’s very unlikely that this is upsetting for them. Plenty of people are unmarried by choice, or at least perfectly content about it, and even those who aren’t are unlikely to get angsty over it from an office party. (In fact, many of them will be glad that they at least got out of dragging a date along to the event.) So the unmarried people will be just fine. (And I know you mean well here, but you want to be careful about not condescending to uncoupled people, and especially about not assuming that their feelings on their romantic status are tied to their age.)

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, the longer answer to your question:

This isn’t uncommon. Certainly many companies do allow employees to bring unmarried significant others to holiday parties, or to bring any type of plus-one, but many other companies restrict it to spouses. For that matter, some don’t even allow guests at all.

And if you look to formal etiquette, this isn’t outrageous. The formal etiquette rule says that you invite spouses together because etiquette treats married couples as a unit, but otherwise doesn’t typically recommend supplying a generic “plus one” invitation. Plenty of people have updated that rule to also include long-term partners, but the general concept of just inviting spouses doesn’t come out of nowhere.

And keep in mind — this isn’t really a social event, no matter how much it might be packaged that way. It’s a work event, designed to strengthen bonds among coworkers, and it’s reasonable for them to put whatever limits they want on who attends.

It’s also worth mentioning that, precisely because these are work events rather than true social ones, these parties aren’t usually a treat for the significant others who go. An awful lot of people see their significant others’ office holiday parties as an obligation to be borne, not a social event to look forward to.

So sure, your boyfriend might take note of this as a sign that he’s working at a somewhat traditional company, at least in this particular way, but I wouldn’t read it as a sign that they’re terribly gauche or even particularly out of line with what’s done at many companies.

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