When Vivian Boyack and Alice "Nonie" Dubes sat in their wheelchairs in a church in Iowa last Saturday, joined by their hands and a 72-year relationship, the Reverend Linda Hunsaker told them: "This is a celebration of something that should have happened a very long time ago."
It was a reference to the discrimination that the women, who are 91 and 90 respectively, had endured since they settled together in Davenport, Iowa, in 1947 (the state legalised gay marriage in 2009). But while the ceremony may have been delayed, the knowledge that their engagement had effectively spanned eight decades lends an added poignancy to their widely circulated wedding photos.
"We've had a good time," Dubes told local news reporters after the service. Boyack added that it had taken a lot of love and work to keep a relationship going for 72 years.
Long waits before marriage are rare but not confined to gay or lesbian couples, many of whom have also shared aisle space in Britain since same-sex marriage became legal last March. Because we are all staying together longer before saying "I do".
A study carried out by the Office for National Statistics in 2011 concluded that "marriage is five years later, on average… due both to the growth in the frequency of cohabitation before marriage and to couples living together for longer before marriage". This trend was borne out by figures for 2012, when the average age at marriage in England and Wales rose to 36.5 years for men and 34.0 years for women (this figure includes second marriages, but 67 per cent were first marriages).
Celia Dodd, a journalist and author based in west London, married her partner, Tom, in 2012, after 37 years together. They met as students in the mid-1970s, and now have three children in their twenties. "My parents definitely expected it to come sooner, and that was a reason not to do it," says Dodd, who is now 60 (Tom, a scientist, is 57). "Among my group of friends, it was a principle not to get married. We felt our commitment went way beyond marriage." She adds: "I also didn't really want to be someone's wife."
Some of Dodd's contemporaries who had also resisted marriage began tying the knot in their forties for financial reasons ("inheritance tax and all that stuff," she says). She and Tom held out, "but then he had a bad accident and it changed everything". Their children leaving home had a further "huge effect on our relationship, and we wanted to renew it," Dodd adds. "Suddenly, marriage felt romantic in a way that it hadn't in the past."
Dodd, who is the author of The Empty Nest: How to Survive and Stay Close to Your Adult Child, organised a simple ceremony at her local church, attended only by family and witnesses, before hosting a party at their home. "It was exciting and exhilarating," she recalls. "I think that if we'd done it 30 years ago, we would have been doing it for somebody else. Now, we were doing it for ourselves."
A keener understanding of commitment, vows about which most couples make long before they face the lows as well as highs of a life together, adds meaning to late marriages, Dodd adds. It's one of the reasons why Hannah Hart, a humanist celebrant who has conducted 75 weddings in the past four years, says: "My heart always sings when I have enquiries from an older couple.
"They're just so much clearer on what they want, from the ceremony as well as life itself," she explains. "They're unburdened by peer pressure, parental expectation or what 'should' be done, and it's often quite inspiring."
Hart, 41, is due to marry a couple in their sixties this weekend. "They've known each other for about 30 years," she says. "They want to get married because they want to afford their relationship the respect they think it deserves, and because they think that life is just too short."
Hart, who is based in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, asks couples what hobbies they share when she meets them. "Often, younger or newer couples have to think really hard about it," she says. "This couple came straight out with a list that went on forever, from travel to walking the dog, to wine clubs and Scottish dancing."
Vows can also reveal differences. "Couples who have been together a long time are more likely to include humour and represent the array of what married life is – the good and the bad," Hart says. They can also inspire long-standing couples to reassess their relationships. "I had a couple in July who had been together for 14 years and had never said, 'I love you'," she adds. "It had started as a bit of a joke but then they felt that it was something people said too much, and it was more important to show it. So in the ceremony I said something about this, and then they started their vows by saying for the first time: 'I love you.' For them it was enormously significant."