A growing phenomenon throughout the West
Alessandro Rosina 6 November 2007

Alessandro Rosina is Assistant Professor of Demography at the Università Cattolica di Milano

Amongst the various transformations which are changing the socio-demographic characteristics of our nation, one of the most important, and which carries the most implications for the future, is, without a doubt, the process of immigration. As late as the 1980s the influx into the country was extremely modest and, consequently, the numbers of people of different nationalities living on Italian soil were also very low. In the last 15 years, however, the picture has changed considerably. We need only consider that the presence of foreign nationals in the early 1990s was below the half a million mark, whereas it (that is, legal immigration) is currently approaching 3 million, which is to say around 5% of the total population, and reaches as high as 10% in some areas of northern Italy. The proportion is even greater amongst young adults: the 18 – 39 age bracket contains less than 30% of the Italian population, but more than 50% of the immigrant population.

The ever increasing foreign presence, particularly amongst adults of working and reproductive age, also means that it is becoming increasingly common for an Italian, in a non-ghettoised society, to have someone of a different nationality as a fellow user of public transport, as a neighbour, as a work colleague – or as a parent of their own children. The closest form of interaction between native Italians and people coming from abroad is the union of the couple, apt to produce new Italians. It is therefore a privileged point of observation to help us understand what the future of our (in the widest sense) nation will be. Besides, in the land which has as its cultural foundations The Divine Comedy and The Betrothed, love (even with a small ‘l’) is seen to be stronger than any rule, and able to surmount any obstacle. And so, with the increase in migration, we also see a marked increase in marriages in which at least one spouse is foreign.

According to statistics, such marriages which formed less than 5% of the total number in the mid-1990s now constitute 15% (and, over the same period, the number of births where at least one parent is foreign have also increased exponentially, going from 2% to 13%). In two out of three marriages involving at least one foreign national, the other spouse is Italian. These are what are referred to commonly, but also in ISTAT reports (the Italian National Institute of Statistics – Ed.), as ‘mixed marriages. There are some observations to be made, however. Firstly, a marriage celebrated on Italian soil which involves two spouses of different nationality, but neither of whom is Italian, is equally, in theory, classified as ‘mixed’. Then, aside from marriages, we must also consider non-marital relationships. More generally, it must be stressed that the criteria of nationality, which is convenient from a statistical point of view, is, however, only partially able to define the complex phenomenon of the meeting and mixing of different cultures. And, finally, we should also bear in mind that not all mixed marriages result from immigration, and that sometimes they are rather the cause. That is, the foreign partner is not always resident in Italy when the couple is formed, and it is possible that the meeting between the future spouses may take place as a result of a trip abroad undertaken for reasons of study, work or pleasure.

If there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a ‘mixed marriage’, there are, nevertheless, certain reasons which justify a greater focus, at least on a basic level, on the marital bond and on unions between Italians and foreign nationals. The principal motive concerns the relevance of this phenomenon to the process of assimilation of immigrants. Unlike non-formalised relationships, in which a purely private relationship is established, marriage implies social recognition, with corresponding judicial rights and duties which are clearly defined (and which have repercussions both on the couple as individuals and on society). In particular it permits privileged access to to the acquisition of Italian citizenship, an event which, from a formal (although not necessarily substantial) point of view, constitutes the most advanced point in the process of assimilation. Up until now, at any rate, access to Italian citizenship has been granted in the vast majority of cases (85%) through mixed marriages.

The case of the United States

The case of the United States is interesting, but also very unusual, because of the emphasis it places on aspects concerning race. It was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court finally declared as unconstitutional the laws which in many states forbade inter-racial marriages (the Antimiscegenation Laws). The objective of such laws was, above all, to prevent marriage between whites and non-whites, whilst unions between non-white mixed couples were generally less subject to judicial restrictions. This clearly highlights an obvious intent to preserve the power and privileges of the dominant group with respect to all others. From a quantitative point of view, inter-racial marriages were still relatively rare at the end of the 1970s, constituting around 0.7% of the total (300 thousand). In the last decades of the twentieth century the increase was continuous and constant, to the extent that current estimations place the figure at ten times greater, that is, 7% (over three million).

In the United States, such ‘intermarriages’ are identified on the basis of a classification of ‘races’ which, at the time of the 2000 census, stipulated five categories (native Americans, Asians, blacks, natives of the Pacific islands, and whites). Then the distinction between Hispanics and non-Hispanics was added. And then, for the first time, an individual was given the possibility of identifying himself or herself as belonging to more than one race. It was an important sign of the recognition of the growing presence of a multiracial American population – the direct fruit of mixed marriages. During the last census, around 7 million people classified themselves in this category (2.5% of the population). It is a considerable figure, but equally thought to be an underestimation, given that some individuals may not be aware of having a multiracial background. Furthermore, various representatives of minorities have suggested to members of their communities that they indicate a single race so as not to lose demographic – and therefore, potentially, political – weight. As a result of immigration, mixing between races and differences in fertility, the percentage of whites has dropped form 88% in 1970 to less than 75% at present. Social acceptance of interracial relationships and multiracial status is at any rate increasing, even if the strongest resistance continues to come from whites.

According to a Gallup poll conducted at the end of 2003, two thirds of white Americans said they would accept a marriage between one of their children and someone of a different race. The hard core who are in favour of laws prohibiting such unions, on the other hand, has dropped to 10% (a notable figure nonetheless). Despite the greater resistance, intermarriages between whites and non-whites have, however, increased greatly. They have risen from 0.4% in 1970 to almost 4% of the total number of marriages involving whites. The same figure, however, is higher for blacks (7%) and Asians (15%) The smaller the racial group, the greater the probability of intermarriages. It rises, indeed, to 50% for native Americans and Hawaiians. However, given that whites make up the vast majority of the American population, in terms of actual figures the most common interracial marriage is between whites and non-whites (80% of all mixed marriages). One point worthy of note are the differences between the sexes. Amongst interracial couples, by far the most common combination is white man and non-white woman. White men tend above all to marry Asian or Hispanic women, and much more rarely those of darker colour. Viceversa, the opposite combination is much more common: the probability that a black man will marry a white woman is 2.5 times more likely than the scenario of a white man marrying a black woman.

This is a very significant difference which reduces the likelihood of marriage for African-American women (since many black men have a preference for white women, without this being compensated by similar opportunities for black women to find white husbands), and so many of these remain single. It is interesting to note, however, that the opposite is true for Asian women, whose chances of entering into a mixed marriage are much higher than men from the same racial group. Such differences between the sexes tend to become even more accentuated as the level of education increases. In particular, with regard to African-Americans, over 10% of men with a degree marry someone of a different colour, whilst less than 5% of women with a degree do. An open-minded attitude towards intermarriages, as well as generally increasing in line with the level of education, is also more prevalent amongst the younger generations. The percentage of spouses of different colour out of the total of couples under 30 is four times higher than that of the percentage of mixed-marriage couples over 60. The trend of the last 30 years, the findings of opinion polls, and the socio-demographic characteristics of those who opt for intermarriage, are all elements which together indicate a future for America which will be increasingly less white and increasingly composed of families and people who straddle the boundaries of different races.

The United Kingdom

The situation closest to the United States in Europe is that of the United Kingdom, where, however, for cultural and historical reasons, the emphasis is placed on ‘inter-ethnical’ rather than ‘inter-racial’ marriages. According to the 2001 census, 2% of married couples were inter-ethnic. It must be taken into account that the lower incidence of mixed marriages, with respect to the United States, is also due to the higher proportion of whites living there (over 90%, as opposed to 75% in the US). Black men of Caribbean origin show a particularly high tendency towards mixed marriages (one out of four is married to a woman of different ethnicity), as do Chinese men (one out of five), whereas the percentage drops to around 2% for white men. Here too, as in the United States, if intermarriage is more common amongst men than women of the black community, the opposite is true of the Chinese community, women having twice as much likelihood of mixed marriage than men. Given the numerical dominance of the white population, out of the total of mixed marriages, the most common, in absolute terms, are those in which one partner belongs to this ethnicity. Indeed, in the 2001 census, out of 219 thousand inter-ethnic couples, 198 thousand involved one white partner.

In the same census, just as in the United States, the possibility was introduced for the first time for individuals to identify themselves as belonging to a mixed ethnic group. The result was the not negligible figure of 677,000 people (1.3% of the population). The largest category within this group is white-black Caribbean, followed by white-Asian. The fact that this is a recent phenomenon, destined to have an ever-greater demographic weight in the future, is testified to by the age profile of this group: half of the population belonging to a mixed ethic group is under the age of 16. It must also be noted that this group is also that which has the greatest tendency to partake in mixed marriages, further contributing to the growth of an inter-ethnic Great Britain. The greater presence of the black Caribbean community and of people of mixed ethnicity in inter-ethnic marriages is also due to their being in the country for a longer period of time, and therefore to their more advanced assimilation. Many mixed marriages are, besides, contracted between members of the second generation. A further possible motive may stem from the fact that for this community, in contrast to those coming from the South Asian region, for example, the social and parental control exercised over the choice of partner with the aim of preserving cultural identity is much weaker, if not practically inexistent.


Throughout the Western world, interest in mixed marriages has greatly increased above all from the 1990s onwards. In France, for example, there had been no statistical study into the phenomenon before the 1992 Ined-Insee survey. In contrast to the UK and the US, where, as we have seen, attention has been focused mainly on those couples composed of individuals of differing race or ethnic group (but who often will have lived in the country from birth), the focus in France has been directed more on marriages between native-born individuals and foreign nationals. It is a situation more directly comparable, therefore, with that of Italy. The interest has indeed been more concentrated on the links between such marriages and the process of integration of immigrants. From a quantitative point of view, the number of marriages celebrated each year in which only one partner is French (‘mariages mixtes’) constituted around 5% of the total in the mid-1970s. This figure had risen to 8% by the end of the 1980s, and now stands at around 15%.

The most common situation is that of a French husband (56%) rather than wife. The most commonly involved groups of foreign nationals in such marriages are those coming from North Africa (and this is the case most typically the subject of public debate), followed by European nationalities. But marriages involving Asians are also very common. Finally, the repercussions on fertility are also interesting. In the context of a country with a particularly high average of children per women with respect to other Western countries, the increase in recent years is due, in fact, to children born of mixed couples, which currently constitute over 11% of total births (with an increase of over 50% in the past 10 years). The increase in birth rate amongst couples where either both partners are French or both foreign nationals, on the other hand, has been less. The issue of children is crucial for mixed marriages and their success. As a dossier on on the subject, published on 9th May 2002 in L’Express, highlighted, even for those who possess l’esprit large, cultural differences bring about everyday conflicts. “La rupture se joue presque toujours autour de l’éducation des enfants”.


In comparison with France, the foreign presence in Italy is a more recent and less rooted phenomenon. It is to be expected, therefore, that the process of integration will be at a less advanced phase and that the incidence of mixed marriages will be lower. Indeed, according to the latest data available, that supplied by Istat for the year 2005, marital unions between Italians and foreign nationals amount to around 23,500, which is to say a little less than 10% of the total number of marriages (compared with 15% in France) In recent years, however, the phenomenon has grown much more rapidly in our country than elsewhere. In the first half of the 1990s, the incidence of such marriages remained at around 3%. This shows that within little more than 10 years the incidence of mixed marriages in Italy has tripled, whereas in France, over the same period, we have seen, approximately, a doubling. This also reflects the fact that the growth of the foreign population in our country over the past 15 years has been particularly consistent (and comparable in Europe only with Spain).

It must also be taken into account that over 85% of foreign nationals in Italy are concentrated in the central-north region. The incidence of mixed marriages is consequently much greater in this region of the country, reaching, in some regions (such as the Emilia Romagna) levels similar to those of France. In comparison with our neighbours across the Alps, it is also interesting to note that the number of women marrying foreign nationals is lower than that of men. Out of 100 mixed marriages, the husband is the native national in 56% of cases in France, but in almost 89% of cases in Italy. Out of the total number of marriages, in only 2% of cases (and in a little less than 3% in the north) is there an Italian wife and foreign husband, three times less than in France (almost 7%). Concerning the opposite combination, however, France only just pips Italy (8.6% compared with 7.6%). This situation is reversed, however, if we consider the centre-north region alone, where the percentage (over 10%) clearly exceeds that of France. Therefore, mixed marriages involving an Italian husband are therefore currently higher in many regions of Italy when compared to France. On the other hand, the number of Italian women marrying a foreign man remains much lower across the country.

We should also note that the difference in age between spouses is very low in mixed marriages with an Italian wife, (lower than that of couples composed of two Italian partners, equal to around 3 years), whereas it is very high (around 8 years) in marriages with an Italian groom. Gender relations within the couple tend in general to be more asymmetric in the latter scenario. Very often, from a male perspective, mixed marriages offer the possibility of a union with traditional roles – something which is increasingly difficult to realise with an Italian woman. Asymmetry tends to be less accentuated in mixed marriages with a natively born woman, on the other hand, not least for the reason that she has the advantage of living in her country of origin, with all the advantages (also concerning the balance of power within the couple) that this implies. It should also be noted, however, that the countries of origin of the wives and husbands have significant differences in gender. Almost one out of four natively born men who entered into a mixed marriage did so with a Roumanian woman. The same percentage of natively born women (25%) entered into marriage with a North African husband. Of the main immigrant communities, there is a general tendency for Italian men to prefer Eastern European women (Ukrainians, Moldavians and Poles as well as Roumanians), and for Italian women to choose men from the southern Mediterranean area (in particular Moroccans and Tunisians). This can be explained in part by the different demographic relationship between the sexes which exists within the various foreign communities. There is a much greater proportion of women coming from the Ukraine, for example, whereas from Tunisia there is a much higher proportion of men. The case of Albania is interesting, being the only Eastern European country with predominantly male immigration, and this, indeed, leads to more mixed marriages between Albanians and Italian women than Italian men.

The varying distribution of the sexes does not, however, explain everything. There is a very significant number of women living in Italy of Peruvian or Ecuadorian origin, but this has led to few mixed marriages with Italian men. On the other hand, marriages between Italian men and Brazilian women are much more common, despite the fact that Brazilian immigration into Italy is generally very low. Overrepresented in mixed marriages with Italian men, in relation to their numbers in Italy, are Russian and Cuban women. On the other hand, we see a greater than expected number of marriages with Italian women of men coming from various Western countries (Great Britain, Germany, the US, France) with respect to their numbers present in the country. This shows that, if immigration is the principle factor in the increase in mixed marriages in Italy, it is also true that, even when presence and demographic structure of immigrant groups are equal, certain groups appear to be more attractive to Italian men and women than others (for reasons of physical or cultural characteristics etc.). On the other hand, there is an important proportion of mixed marriages that does not result from immigration but rather from temporary mobility (for reasons of study, work or pleasure) of Italians in other countries. In some cases such mobility is already orientated towards the search for a ‘soul mate’ in certain countries (for example holidays to Brasil, Cuba etc.) In other cases the meeting that will later evolve into a relationship is the ‘accidental’ fruit of business or study trips (to the UK, the US etc.), which are becoming more and more common in the age of globalisation. It is also true that some communities are more closed than others, having a very significant presence in our country and a very high incidence of marriages within its own community but a very low incidence of marriages with people of other ethnic groups. In Italy the most typical example is that of the Chinese community.

A final mention should be made of the marital instability of this kind of couple. Statistics from ISTAT tell us that between 2000 and 2005 the separation rate in Italy rose as a whole by around 15%, whilst over the same period the breakdown in mixed marriages increased by 85%, currently comprising around 10% of total separations. It is therefore true that the increase seems considerable, but at closer inspection we can see that it matches the increased rate of formation of such marriages. In fact, at least for the present, the data concerning the incidence of mixed marriages as a proportion of total marriages, and the breakdown of mixed marriages as a proportion of total marriages, is very similar. It is therefore too early to say whether marriages of Italians with foreign nationals have a significantly greater risk of failure in comparison to marriages between two Italians. If we consider the case of France, which is that closest to ours but at a more advanced stage, the issue of children is crucial. The proof of the success of failure of the meeting of cultures that mixed marriages bring together, concerns, above all, their upbringing. It can therefore constitute one of the principal causes of crisis within a couple. At the same time, the presence of children can also exacerbate the conflict in the actual process of separation. The negative repercussions can therefore be greater with respect to a break-up within a couple composed of two Italians, risking above all upsetting the delicate and complex path of the children towards integration and the development of their own multi-ethnic identity.

This article was published in Reset, number 103.

Translation by Liz Longden



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)