Posted on February 12, 2008

Italy’s Mixed Couple Boom—One in Seven Has Non-Italian Partner

Gaia Piccardi, Corriere della Sera (Milan), February 12, 2008

In 1991, there were only 58,000 mixed couples but by 2005 number had risen to over 200,000 with 6,000 new unions each year.

Our children’s grandchildren will speak two languages without having to study them. They’ll know their way around the Koran and the Gospels. They’ll spend one Christmas in the snow and the next in the heat. They’ll eat savoury foods for breakfast and they won’t stare at mixed-race strangers in the street because they, too, will have roots that go deep and reach far. They, too, will be the children of children from a mixed marriage. The Italy being transformed by the impact of migration is changing the colour of its skin, the style of its clothes, the value system it clings to, the religions it professes, its eating habits and even its courtship rituals. Fundamental to the inter-ethnic and intercultural transformation of this incandescent, ever-shifting, magma-like society are mixed couples, of which there were only 58,000 in 1991, a number that rose to over 200,000 in 2005 and continues to grow at a rate of more than 6,000 a year. Some such unions may be contracted solely in order to acquire citizenship, fuelling a thriving marriage market, but the future of Italy can be traced here and now in today’s situation. One wedding in seven now involves a non-Italian citizen, although in only 20% of mixed marriages is the bride Italian, leaving aside de facto unions, which are difficult to quantify.

More than four times as many

Italy’s numbers still fall far short of countries with a deep-rooted tradition of migration, such as the United States or France, yet here too new family formats that have little to do with the traditional model have been incorporated into our multi-ethnic society of the future. In the early 1990s, the proportion of marriages in Italy with at least one non-Italian partner was just 3.2% but by 2005, the figure had shot up to 14.3%. In other words, mixed marriages had more than quadrupled. “Once, it was seasoned travellers or intellectuals who contracted mixed marriages”, explains Mara Tognetti Bordogna, a sociology professor from Milan’s Bicocca university and author of several books on the subject. Today, with large-scale immigration from eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, they’re available to everyone”. Border provinces tend to have the highest rates: Imperia (15.4%), Trieste (14.9%) and Bolzano (13.6%) are at the top of the table. Cities that score high include Bologna (12.2%), followed by Milan (11%), Florence (10.8%) and Genoa (10.7%) whereas the south of Italy is less receptive. At the bottom of the table is Puglia, where only 2.7% of marriages are mixed.

Desire for freedom

What is the underlying reason for marrying a foreigner? Why do people choose to enter a relationship with someone who is “different”? “Because they are looking for more openness, freedom, freshness and contrast. It is a major challenge to our rules of culture and kinship, and to our legislation”, observes Professor Tognetti, “because mixed marriage transforms institutions, making intercultural exchange the norm and opening up new opportunities for society. Children are born into two worlds and a plurality of languages and religions. Society bends and changes, but in a positive sense”. On examining the composition of mixed marriages, we note that in most cases (59.1%) Italian males marry non-Italian females, often from central or eastern Europe. In half of the marriages, the man is at least ten years older than the woman, a proportion that drops to 15% in the case of Italian women who have married non-Italian men. There is also a clear preference among Italian women for partners from the Moroccan and Tunisian or other African communities.

Risk of breaking up

The busy cultural laboratory of mixed couples does, however, have to deal with a clash of identities that is often a volcano simmering on the edge of eruption. “Couples argue about how to spend their money, how much to save, what gifts to give partners and relatives, holidays and their children’s education”, says Professor Tognetti. “Although religion is important, it is not the main cause of break-ups. Everyday life sparks off the biggest quarrels, deriving from the difficulty of constant adaptation in the roles of an atypical family. Then there are differences related to the age and education gaps. But the biggest handicap for mixed couples is the fact that they are still isolated by our society”.

It is no surprise that ISTAT and Eurispes statistics show mixed unions are more likely fail than traditional marriages. This also holds true for second unions, 36% of which break down if the male is Italian and the female non-Italian, as do 19% if the woman is Italian and the man is not. Many people view a mixed marriage as a fall-back solution, to be considered only after the failure of the “normal” family format. The proportion of mixed divorces and separation hovers around 80%, with a more marked tendency for divorce. In practice, one mixed-race couple in three breaks up and the divorce rate is twice that for all-Italian unions. The figure from the Eurispes 2007 Italy report suggests that many couples are unequal to the arduous challenge of an intercultural relationship.

Mixed-mixed marriages

The future is here with us today but what about the Italy we can look forward? It will be first and foremost a fluid, open marriage market where no one will worry about how many mixed unions there are. Instead, they will be exploring the many family formats on offer. Italy will continue to be a republic founded on labour but also perhaps on mixed-mixed marriages: unions involving migrants from two different countries. Italians by adoption but not by origin, they will be Italians plain and simple.