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Italy's mamma's boys: The curse of the mammoni

Francesca, Olimpia and Maria blame their mother-in-laws for the breakdown of their relationships. Credit: On Assignment

At the All Star Bar in Rome's medieval Trastevere district, I am sharing a drink with three young Italian women and talking about Italian men.

Francesca, a broadcaster, is a divorced single mother. Olimpia, a student, and Maria, a music teacher, are recently separated from their boyfriends.

All three left their partners because of another woman - not a secret lover, but his mother.

The men my trio of companions left behind are members of Italy's legion of mammoni - mother's boys who simply cannot break free of maternal bonds that in this society seem to bind so tightly.

Francesca is not one to pull her punches. "My husband had her inside him," she tells me. "He was really addicted to her in a sense".

The others relate the same story. Olimpia's boyfriend had a mother who constantly judged her and Maria talks of "a competition between me and her."

Self-confessed mammoni Emidio Buffalini. Credit: On Assignment

Divorce was not legalised in Italy until 1970.

But the divorce rate has been accelerating ever since, particularly now the required "cooling off" period has been sharply reduced.

In nearly a third of divorces now, mammismo is a factor: an interfering mother accepted by the law as grounds for the breakdown of a marriage.

And the figure is reflected in ecclesiastical tribunals, where couples who want to be able to remarry in church can seek an annulment in a lengthy and expensive process.

Mother-in-laws are now cited in a third of divorces in Italy. Credit: On Assignment

Mammismo is recognised as one of the grounds for annulment and Vatican lawyer Angelo Coccia has encountered some extreme examples.

"I have one case where both parents of one of the spouses had the keys to the house," he tells me. "They were going into the home and doing and laundry and cooking instead of the daughter in law."

Italian society is changing, women are becoming more independent and less willing to tolerate marriages overshadowed by outside interference.

But as we discovered, the Italian mother shows little sign of being displaced.

Watch On Assignment tonight at 10.40pm on ITV.