“He’ll never by the cow when he can get the milk for free”

“He’ll never by the cow when he can get the milk for free” December 3, 2014

I recently noted this comment between readers on one of my blog posts.


Oh god, did your mom use the old “He’ll never buy the cow when he can get the milk for free” idiom on you too?

So, let’s talk about this, because I did grow up hearing this idiom. When I was a teen, my parents told me that if I were to have sex with a man, he would have no reason to marry me, because he would have already gotten what he wanted. I was also told that once a man had gotten what he wanted—i.e. sex—he would leave me. There would be no reason for him to commit to me.

But when you boil this down, the entire point of the idiom is that women should use sex to lure men into marriages they would not otherwise enter. But what woman in her right mind wants to be married to a guy who only married her to gain access to her sex? Because that’s what we’re talking about here! When people say that having sex with a man before marriage will mean he has no reason to marry you, what they are really saying is that men only marry to gain access to sex.

While I think every couple should make their own decision when it comes to sex, I actually think the “he’ll never buy the cow when he can get the milk for free” idiom is a very good argument for having sex before marriage. Despite what sex-obsessed fundamentalist and evangelical Christians may say, marriage is not fundamentally about sex. It is fundamentally about a partnership. When couples believe they have to wait for marriage for sex, they are at risk of their hormones driving them into marriage.

You know what’s ironic? My parents taught me that unmarried couples who were already having sex would be unable to think straight about their relationship because of all the hormones. It’s like they couldn’t see that a couple really really really wanting to have sex with each other and denying themselves that—and believing that the only way they can get that thing they really want is by marrying each other—might make a couple even more unable to think straight about their relationship. It’s sort of like how a person who is starving can’t think straight about food and will end up gorging themselves when given a chance.

If a couple has sex before marriage, not only can they gauge how sexually compatible they are, they also no longer have the desire to have sex driving them into marriage before they are ready. And this is a good thing! I remember my sister approaching me at age 18 with an article in an evangelical publication urging young people to marry early, because sex. She was interested in someone at the time and inquired whether I thought marrying early in order to have sex was a good idea. This made me uncomfortable, because I suddenly saw starkly the way a desire to have sex could push a couple to marry before they were necessarily ready.

I’ve been married for over half a decade now, and while our sex life is still good (albeit more sporadic, due to having small children), there is definitely a point where the original warm fuzzies wear off. It’s similar to the way puppy love ultimately subsides and needs to be replaced by a more mature love. So if a couple marries amid the warm fuzzies and fireworks, they won’t know how their relationship will weather those things wearing off, or whether those things are inflating their perception of their relationship. None of this means the couple can’t have a successful relationship, but it does mean the road may be rockier.

This “he’ll never buy the cow when he can get the milk for free” idiom also promotes some rather negative views of men. Even before I knew what sex was, my parents told me that “boys are only interested in one thing.” I found this very confusing, because I didn’t know what that “one thing” was. The overall result was that I viewed boys my age with deep suspicion and distrust. They were frightening to me, because I knew they were only interested in “one thing” and that that “one thing” was bad and had something to do with me. When I finally came out of my self-imposed shell during college, I learned that men are not so one-dimensional.

And of course, there’s also the fact that marriage is no longer a purchase transaction. Marriage is not about a man purchasing a woman. It is about a couple choosing to be life partners. That’s a big difference. A life partnership is not built on the foundation of one person wanting sex and the other holding out until a marriage license is signed.

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