The family (la famiglia) is the most important aspect of an Italian’s life. It provides emotional and economic support to the individual and often forms the basis of their social circles. Italian families on average have become smaller in size over the past few decades as the fertility rate has declined. The fast economic pace in the 21st century has also changed family dynamics; one parent is often unavailable during the week due to commuting long distances for work. There may also be less contact time with the extended family. Nevertheless, relationships remain extremely close.
Italian parents generally have a lot of authority over their children throughout their lives. Most Italians seek autonomy and independence, but due to the economic climate, many stay at home for years into their adulthood. Indeed, Italians leave their parents’ home at one of the highest ages in Europe. Even when children move away, family ties are still very strong.
There is a deep respect for elderly family members in Italian culture. Senior family members are deeply dedicated to their children and grandchildren. Their care comes with the expectation that their children will support and assist them throughout old age later in life. This belief is especially strong amongst elderly first-generation Italian migrants. Residential care is avoided unless the family has no other option. Even then, nursing homes are often viewed negatively and elderly Italians can resist being placed in one by applying moral pressure and guilt on their children.
Differences Across Italy
There tends to be a difference in family structures and values between the north and south of Italy. Generally, in the north and particularly in larger cities, people are more individualistic and focus on personal fulfilment. The family still plays an important role in creating social cohesion and a sense of belonging, but it is more common for non-traditional family values to be embraced. Nuclear family structures are common and there is preference for a smaller number of children.
The south and rural parts of Italy are often more family-orientated. It is not unusual for the immediate family and extended family to live together and be deeply involved in each other’s daily lives. The birth rate is often higher as well. In some small villages and towns where families have resided next to one another for generations, there may be a strong emphasis on maintaining family reputation. For example, families may hide any drama or internal conflict from the public eye to save themselves from shame or embarrassment.
It should be noted that Italian-Australians that migrated from Southern Italy during the post-war period tend to hold quite traditional family values. Money management is an important aspect of many of their lives as the majority of first-generation migrants arrived from quite economically poor backgrounds. Today, money is highly valued for the security it provides for their children’s future. Parents often contribute to their children’s living costs once they have moved out of their home. Some may even buy their child land or a house so they can assure their financial security as well as that child’s close proximity to the family home. However, the monetary management of families and financial freedom of children varies between each individual family.
Italian women are encouraged to be independent and bold from a young age. They are renowned for their confidence, which has led them to be labelled the ‘most liberated women in Europe’ at times. However, Italian culture continues to carry some sexist undertones. Stereotypes that depict women as beautiful and unintelligent are quite popular in Italy, and catcalling or wolf whistling is common. Social attitudes are changing, but they can still present difficulties for women’s career progression as they may not be taken seriously. They also face other challenges in the workplace, such as lower wages and preference for male employees in some sectors. While men and women have equal rights in law, society is still largely male-dominated.
Within the family dynamic, the man is usually the patriarch and considered the primary income earner. Traditionally, a woman was expected to fulfill roles of matrimony and motherhood. Today, most Italian women receive a high level of education and work to contribute to the household income; however, they are still expected to be responsible for the majority of the household duties. Gender roles may vary between socioeconomic classes as well as between rural and urban areas. For example, those from urban areas or belonging to upper classes are more likely to share responsibilities. It is also becoming more common for women to choose alternate paths, such as career paths, and there has been a decrease in fertility rates for several decades now. Generally, however, men contribute very little to the domestic chores.
Marriage and Dating
Dating customs in Italy are similar to those in Australia. Engagements may happen earlier on in a relationship. However, couples generally wait until the man has stable employment before marrying. Hence, engagements between young couples can last for many years.
Marriage is a very respected convention in Italian society, especially among devout Christians. Ceremonies usually follow the Roman Catholic tradition and are often performed at the church of the bride’s hometown. However, civil ceremonies are becoming increasingly common. Customarily, the bride and groom are not meant to see each other the day before the wedding. Italian Australians usually do not have a problem with their children marrying people that are not Italian, but many would still prefer an Italian marriage. As of 2012, 10% of Italian marriages were between an Italian citizen and a foreign resident (National Institute of Statistics, 2012). Marrying outside of one’s faith is generally thought to be more difficult if a family is quite religious.
Under Italian law, a couple must be legally separated for six months before a divorce can be granted. The divorce rate is slowly growing, and the marriage rate is slowly declining as more couples are choosing to live together in de facto relationships (more so in Northern Italy).