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I was at Toronto City Hall a couple weeks ago for a wedding. On that cold Saturday afternoon, as the sunlight streamed into the unadorned but elegant chambers, the bride and groom that we'd all come to watch tie the knot repeated the usual promises to stick by each other through the ups and downs. These vows were touching and yanked a few tears, but the two dozen friends and family in the room didn't have to reach for their handkerchiefs until near the end, when the bride pulled out a piece of folded paper and read some words about how much her new husband has meant to her over the years – all 26 of them.

I've been to a few weddings in my time, but this one – between my girlfriend's father and his partner – was the first I'd attended where the couple weren't simply making abstract promises to the future, but were also celebrating a love that was already a proven reality.

In the early days of a relationship, commitment is largely about surviving uncertainty. Back when I dabbled in online dating, I remember that the key word – the one that appeared in every woman's description of "what I want in a man" – was confidence. Confidence at the beginning of a relationship is, of course, the ability to bear with grace the uncertainty that dating entails.

The family and friends who attend early-days weddings bear this uncertainty, too, and our unflagging ability to do so reflects well our society's steadfastly optimistic nature in the face of the divorce rate. These ceremonies always convey this romance of our collective spirit, but if you're looking for the most poignant celebration of love and relationship, it seems to me now that it's the late-in-love wedding.

One couple I know had been together nearly 20 years when they planned their wedding – pretty much by accident. As they organized a celebration of Marni's 50th birthday, they realized the guest list would make for a great wedding reception, too.

"When we were growing up emotionally in the sixties and seventies, marriage was out of fashion, politically and culturally," Brian said. "And frankly, one reason I was not eager to get married earlier was the feeling of, 'If it ain't broke don't fix it.' Marriage and divorce seemed joined at the hip to me. The beginning of the end."

As it happened, their wedding came at a time when their teenage son would be old enough to enjoy the evening – he played Wipe Out on the electric guitar – and when their parents were still alive and well enough to attend.

"You can make the mistake of thinking that your relationship is private," Marni said, looking back at her common-law era. "But we all invest in other people's relationships. It's in the eyes of your community that you really marry and your friends and community also mean more to you later in life."

Sheldon, one half of a same-sex couple that married in 2007 – two years after it became legal in Canada – says he and his partner hadn't ever wanted to get married before the law was changed.

"As we inched toward our 10th anniversary, we were talking about how to celebrate it," he told me this week. The two of them discussed taking a trip around the world, but then Sheldon's partner suggested a wedding.

"It wasn't something I yearned for," he said. "You have love, you live with love and you go through life. We lived for 10 years together. I would say the knot was already tied." But he agreed and then was surprised at how much of an impact the celebration ended up having on him.

"It sounds romantic, but it's like suddenly with that act you don't just live your life and that's all. You take a little stop and you cherish it."

The poignant effect of framing a moment in time isn't exclusive to weddings that occur later in a relationship, but again, I'd say that the emotion carries a greater resonance. Indeed, at the wedding I attended a couple weeks ago, everyone in that small room in City Hall felt that little stop in their own lives – whether the love was for them abstract, a beginning of a life together, or a life and love already shared.

Brian had spoken of a similar infectiousness about his party with Marni. "Our wedding was a gesture that felt generous," he said. "We were asking people to celebrate our romance and that we'd gotten that far, but it did feel like we were also spreading the love. We were showing them there's romance in midlife."