The changing meaning of cohabitation: evidence from Bologna, Italy

Christin Schroeder, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research

In Italy the development of cohabitation is characterized by hesitant diffusion. Only a few couples opt for this new form of living arrangement – they are mainly from the urban centers of northern Italy. In general, it is argued that economic dependence on the family, the rigid structure of the housing market, high youth unemployment rates as well as traditionally strong family ties hamper the diffusion of non-marital unions. In order to reveal the mechanisms behind the decision to cohabit, we conducted about 30 semi-structured in-depth-interviews with women in Bologna, the capital city of the northern Italian region Emilia-Romagna. Our preliminary findings support that a change in the meaning of cohabitation is taking place in (northern) Italy. Cohabitation is not only seen as trial marriage, but also as a real alternative to a conjugal union. The analysis draws attention to the fact that informal unions in Italy are shaped by a ‘Mediterranean’ character: most interviewed women perceive cohabitation as a step to be done once a woman is mature, experienced and economically independent. Women rarely consider cohabitation as a possibility of “growing together”, but perceive their cohabitation as a definite decision to stay together with their partner throughout life. In this respect, the entry into cohabitation has a quite similar meaning as the entry into marriage. As far as the impact of family ties is concerned we observe both cases: parents either encourage their daughter to marry or parents accept their daughter’s decision to cohabit right away. In the first case women tend to convert their informal union into marriage, whereas this is much less the case for women with more tolerant parents. It is also striking that many women communicate with her mother about their living arrangements and hold her opinion in high regard.

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Presented in Poster Session 1