I'm going to try my best to clarify why I believe the notion spread by some that marriage must be either "child centered" or "an adult relationship" is a false dichotomy. A few laws of marriage deal with the establishment of the parental relationship, and these laws are certainly extremely important. Incidentally they are extremely important for the children of same-sex couples as well. In comments to another post, commenter Pete directed my attention to a Massachusetts case T.F. v. B.L. where a lesbian couple decided to have a baby using D.I. and subsequently broke up. After a time one of them refused to pay child support, and the court ruled they could not order her to do so. If, however, they had been married she would have been established as parent and had the obligations to support her child. We see yet again here part of the importance of getting married before having children. (Three similar cases are currently before the California Supreme Court). The article notes:
Lambda Legal says that couples who register as domestic partners will have the benefit of presumed parentage for children born into the relationship. That protection is provided by A.B. 205, California's extensive domestic partnership law, which went into effect in January.
In any case while the establishment of parentage or laws establishing custody in divorce are certainly importants ways that marriage benefits children, they are not the primary way marriage does so. That is marriage is not primarily about the direct relationship between parent and children. That relationship should and generally is established and respected even when the parents are not married. [I should note that marriage used to be much more important in these regards. Marriage used to establish which children had a right to inherit and make claims of support and which did not. We have moved away from this idea, and most people would now agree that even illegitimate children should be part of the full parent-child relationship].
I believe marriage is (and should be) primarily about the relationship between the adults. Overwhelming the laws of marriage deal with governing this relationship and establishing and protecting the direct rights and obligations that spouses have to each other. A marriage which ends (through death or divorce) before any children were born did not serve no purpose, nor was it insignificant. A marriage can and should continue to function well after the children are raised (and certainly well after parentage is established). This adult relationship is important, it does benefit society, and it is rightfully governed by family law.
Does this mean I don't think marriage is about children? Of course not. I have just said that overwhelmingly marriage is concerned directly with the relationship between the spouses as opposed to the relationship between parent and children (which exists independently of marriage). The crucial point to remember, though, is that the relationship between a child's parents has an enormous impact on the welfare of the child.
Children generally do better when their parents are married. This seems obvious to me, but studies certainly back me up. Why is that? Is it because a child is then more likely to be raised by his or her biological parents? Possibly, although I would think adopted children would fare better with married parents. Is it because a child of a married couples is more likely to be raised with a father and mother? Possibly, but I doubt this is the main reason marriage is better. For one children do better with marriage as opposed to cohabitation which would also provide a father and mother. Children do better with married parents as opposed to divorced parents even if both are involved in the child's life. Furthermore, studies to date (while necessarily imperfect because of the limited data) support the belief that a child does just as well with same-sex parents.
So, no, I do not believe that the benefit of marriage to children stems primarily from who the marriage provides, but rather the structure it provides. Again given the same two parents, I think married parents would provide a better structure for the children than cohabiting parents. Why should this be the case? The short answer is because the relationship between the parents makes a big difference to the child. Part of that is the love parents show to each other, but there is much more. When the parents have obligations not only to the child, but to each other there is a model that family members have obligations to each other which are serious and enduring. There is also a sense of security in a child knowing their parents have made a solemn commitment to remain together. Marriage makes it easier for the adults to fulfill their obligations even in times of difficulty. This can teach a child on the importance of fulfilling our obligations to each other even through difficult times.
This is not to mention the more concrete ways that the parents' obligations to each other benefit the child. They make it easier for one or both of the parents to sacrifice career interests to put the family first. They make it easier to support each other in times of sickness and other difficulties. Certainly a child is going to do better when his or her parents are well cared for, and who better to care for them than each other.
When we talk about marriage as the ideal for raising children, we do not mean that every couple who gets married makes the perfect parents. Nor do we mean that every couple who gets married is capable of providing everything for their children. What we mean is that a couple who marries is at least doing all that they can to help their future children, in large part because they are doing all they can to establish a committed relationship to each other.
[Again I won't be posting this weekend because of the holiday.]