J. Clin. Psychol. 2019;75:1896– | © 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Received: 30 April 2018 | Revised: 4 May 2019 | Accepted: 1 June 2019DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22825


Intrapersonal and interpersonal facilitators offorgiveness following spousal infidelity: A stressand coping perspective

Peilian Chi1 | Yixin Tang2 | Everett L. Worthington3 |Cecilia L. W. Chan4 | Debbie O. B. Lam4 | Xiuyun Lin2

1Department of Psychology, University of

Macau, Macau SAR, China

2Faculty of Psychology, Beijing Normal

University, Beijing, China

3Department of Psychology, Virginia

Commonwealth University, Richmond,


4Department of Social Work and Social

Administration, The University of Hong Kong,

Hong Kong SAR, China


Dr. Xiuyun Lin, Faculty of Psychology, Beijing

Normal University, Beijing, China.

Email: [email protected]

Dr. Peilian Chi, Department of Psychology,

University of Macau, Zhuhai, China.

Email: [email protected] and

[email protected]

Funding information

University of Macau Research Council, Grant/

Award Number: MYRG2018‐00098‐FSS;National Natural Science Foundation of

China, Grant/Award Number: 31700972


Objective: Forgiveness includes processes that involve a

decision to stop bitterness and thoughts of revenge (i.e.,

decisional forgiveness), which further motivates the forgiver

towards the restoration of positive emotions (i.e., emotional

forgiveness). Using stress and coping framework, this study

investigated intrapersonal and interpersonal facilitators of

decisional and emotional forgiveness in a Chinese marital


Method: Participants were 154 respondents who had

experienced or were experiencing spousal infidelity.

Results: Solidarity‐oriented personality and perceived part-ner’s reconciliation motivation facilitated benign attribu-

tions and empathy, then facilitated higher levels of

decisional forgiveness, which promoted emotional forgive-

ness. Strength of marital bond before the infidelity directly

predicted higher levels of emotional forgiveness.

Conclusions: Our findings provide evidence for the differ-

entiated decisional and emotional forgiveness processes

after spousal infidelity and delineate different coping

mechanism that triggers them, thus lending culturally

appropriate evidence for clinicians who work with clients

facing spousal infidelity.


Chinese, decisional forgiveness, emotional forgiveness, marital

relationship, spousal infidelity, stress and coping


Marital infidelity is a relationship transgression that has the potential to traumatize both noninvolved partners (i.e.,

partners who are cheated on) and involved partners (Gordon, Baucom, & Snyder, 2008) and threatens the stability of the

relationship (Olson, Russell, Higgins‐Kessler, & Miller, 2002). Prior literature suggests that marital infidelity, regardless ofthe types (i.e., sexual infidelity, emotional infidelity, or combined sexual and emotional infidelity), is one of the most

distressing events that couples might face and one of the most challenging issues to deal with in couple therapy (Gordon

et al., 2008). After disclosure or discovery of an affair, noninvolved partners usually experience strong negative emotional,

motivational, and cognitive turbulence, such as shame, rage, depression, anxiety, powerlessness, a sense of abandonment,

and rumination (Charny & Parnass, 1995; Gordon, Baucom, & Snyder, 2004; Olson et al., 2002).

In the past two decades, psychologists have recognized the important role of forgiveness in effectively dealing

with small transgressions (e.g., disregard) as well as major breaches in trust and relationship boundaries such as

infidelity in close relationships (Fincham, 2000; Fitness & Peterson, 2008; Gordon & Baucom, 1998). Regardless of

whether a marriage continues or is terminated, forgiveness can help noninvolved partners cope with stress caused

by infidelity and its aftermath (Hall & Fincham, 2006), and benefit their physical and mental health (Braithwaite,

Fincham, & Lambert, 2009; Gordon & Baucom, 1998; Witvliet & McCullough, 2007). Although great strides have

been made in forgiveness research, only a few empirical studies have investigated forgiveness after spousal

infidelity in romantic relationships (Hall & Fincham, 2006; Shrout & Weigel, 2017) and in a marital context (for a

review, see Pentel, Baucom, Gordon, & Snyder, 2017). In addition, among the small number of studies on

forgiveness after spousal infidelity, most of them involve case studies with small sample sizes (e.g., Gordon et al.,

2004; Olson et al., 2002).

Moreover, existing work on forgiveness has predominantly applied to Western populations. Research among

Westerners has shown that forgiveness was facilitated by intrapersonal factors (e.g., trait forgiveness and

religiousness), interpersonal factors (e.g., relationship closeness and quality, apology, and remorse), and social

cognitive and emotional coping responses (e.g., benign attributions and empathy; Fehr, Gelfand, & Nag, 2010;

Fincham, 2000; Fincham & Beach, 2007; Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002; Fitness & Peterson, 2008;

Gordon et al., 2004; Jose & Alfons, 2007; McCullough et al., 1998). In China, under the impact of Confucian

theories, forgiveness provides a fundamental rule for handling interpersonal relationships, expressing empathy, and

giving up resentment toward offenders. The emphasis on harmony and conjugal love might be unique facilitators of

forgiving a loved one in a Chinese marital context. Whether the Western‐originated forgiveness theories andtreatment models apply in a Chinese context remains inadequately understood. Also, whether culturally defined

factors such as harmony and conjugal love could facilitate forgiveness warrant further investigation. Therefore, it is

important to provide culturally appropriate evidence for couple therapists in China given that they are highly likely

to encounter infidelity in their clinical work. Estimates suggest that 16.5% of men and 4.5% of women are involved

in sexual affairs in the past 12 months in China (N. Zhang, Parish, Huang, & Pan, 2012).

This present study aimed to explore the intrapersonal and interpersonal facilitators of forgiveness after spousal

infidelity and further develop a theoretically‐supported model of forgiveness after spousal infidelity in Chinese toinform clinical practices. In the following sections, we start with a discussion of the differentiated processes of

decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness. Next, we present a theoretical model of forgiveness in Chinese

couples, which is theoretically rooted in the stress and coping theory (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Finally, we discuss

the coping resources of noninvolved partners (including both intrapersonal characteristics and interpersonal

tendencies) that may facilitate forgiveness.

1.1 | Decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness

Gordon and Baucom (1998) suggested that forgiveness consisted of a cognitive component (a realistic view

of the relationship), an emotional component (letting go of negative affect toward the involved partner), and

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a behavioral or motivational component (a decreased desire for revenge). They proposed an integrated

treatment model for infidelity and suggested three stages after spousal infidelity: Impact, meaning‐search,and recovery (Gordon & Baucom, 1998). When a couple cannot easily move through the three stages, a

therapist might guide them through the stages. The stage‐like conceptualization provides a valuabletherapeutic direction for clinicians and inspired a series of case studies which provided preliminary support

for the clinical efficacy of the integrative treatment model (Gordon et al., 2004; Pentel et al., 2017). However,

it did not clearly differentiate a cognitive‐rational process from an emotional process of forgiveness.Similarly, most other conceptualizations of forgiveness (McCullough et al., 1998; Paleari, Regalia, & Fincham,

2009) have focused on positive (e.g., benevolence) and/or negative dimensions (e.g., avoidance, revenge) but

have overlooked cognitive and emotional processes of forgiveness.

Worthington and Scherer (2004) further proposed that forgiveness consists of two distinct but related

processes: Decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is a behavioral intention that

one will treat a transgressor as a valued and valuable person, which is viewed as an act of the will and a choice to let

go of judgment and hostility. In contrast, emotional forgiveness involves reduction of negative emotions, such as

anger, resentment, bitterness, and the like, toward the transgressor. One might genuinely decide to forgive and

demonstrate forgiving behaviors, yet still remain emotionally unforgiving, feeling angry, anxious, or depressed

(Worthington & Scherer, 2004). To the extent that emotional forgiveness occurs, they will be related to reduced

stress responses and positive health consequences. However, decisional forgiveness itself might not necessarily

lead to positive health consequences (Worthington, Witvliet, Pietrini, & Miller, 2007), which reflects the importance

of distinguishing decisional and emotional forgiveness.

Decisional forgiveness is theorized as a potential pathway leading to emotional forgiveness (Worthington et al.,

2007). Characterized by positive behaviors towards partners with conscious regulation of negative motivation,

decisional forgiveness has the potential to trigger a process of emotional forgiveness. It is like “making the

commitment to forgive,” which signifies the beginning of an inner process of forgiving (Enright & the Human

Development Study Group, 1996). Even with the lack of emotional forgiveness, decisional forgiveness could help

noninvolved partners overcome the currents of negative feelings, which may exert positive effects on their well‐being and enhance their coping effectiveness with the hard feelings (Chi, Du, & Lam, 2011). In addition, decisional

forgiveness implies a positive attitude toward noninvolved partners and a hint of the possibility of reestablishing

trust, which might encourage partner’s reconciliation behaviors (e.g., apology). Indeed, case studies of noninvolved

partners in a Chinese marital context have shown that forgiveness is a process moving from decisional forgiveness

to emotional forgiveness (Chi, 2011).

1.2 | An integrated model of forgiveness: a stress and coping perspective

Strelan and Covic (2006) has conceptualized the forgiveness process as analogous to the coping process and

proposed a stress and coping model of forgiveness based on fundamental principles in the seminal work by Lazarus

and Folkman (1984). The model theorizes that transgressions provoke a stress response in victims, and forgiveness

is one way of coping with the stress (Strelan, in press). The utilization of the stress and coping perspective and the

conceptualization of forgiveness as coping can help us explore the antecedent determinants of forgiveness and

understand the underlying mechanisms leading to forgiveness. Based on the stress and coping theory (Lazarus &

Folkman, 1984) and Strelan’s stress and coping model of forgiveness (2006), we proposed an integrated model to

delineate forgiveness processes in couple relationships, tested the model in the Chinese marital context, and

explored factors that may facilitate decisional and emotional forgiveness after spousal infidelity (see Figure 1 for

the full conceptual model).

The decisional and emotional forgiveness process could be viewed as a means of reducing stress reactions

caused by spousal infidelity (Worthington & Scherer, 2004). Both decisional and emotional forgiveness are

significantly influenced by cognitive appraisals about an event or situation based on personal and

1898 | CHI ET AL.

environmental coping resources (Strelan, in press). In a marital context, cognitive appraisals which play a

major role in how partners respond to interpersonal transgressions can be reflected in attributions of spousal

infidelity (Shrout & Weigel, 2018). Attributions are how spousal infidelity is interpreted in terms of causes

and accountability (Fincham & Bradbury, 1992; Fincham, Paleari, & Regalia, 2002). If noninvolved partners

perceive that the cause of the infidelity is not within the involved partners (locus), that the incident will not

repeatedly occur (stability), and that the event would not affect other aspects of their relationship (globality),

noninvolved partners would respond more positively towards their involved partners, and be more likely to

forgive. Meanwhile, noninvolved partners also evaluate the accountability of the infidelity. If noninvolved

partners perceive that the infidelity is not intentional, not driven by selfish reasons, and that involved

partners are not blameworthy for the infidelity incident, noninvolved partners are more likely to forgive, and

thus have fewer stress responses.

Emotional reactions often surface after the cognitive appraisal of a situation (Witvliet, Hofelich Mohr,

Hinman, & Knoll, 2015). We thus propose that benign attributions are associated with empathic responses

such as sympathy, compassion, and tenderness, towards involved partners. Empathy is defined as a vicarious

emotion that is congruent with, but not necessarily the same as, the emotion of another person (Batson,

1990). As suggested by extant findings on the empathy‐forgiveness link (McCullough et al., 1998;McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997; Wenzel, Turner, & Okimoto, 2010), empathy would be a proximal

determinant of both decisional and emotional forgiveness. When a person can see alternative perspectives,

appreciate situational constraints, and feel the suffering of another person, both decisional and emotional

forgiveness are more likely to occur. Studies of forgiveness in a marital context have shown that attributions

facilitate empathy, which further predict forgiveness of small transgressions (Fincham et al., 2002; Paleari,

Regalia, & Fincham, 2005). In the present study, we test whether the suggested attribution‐empathy‐forgiveness link applies to individuals who faced spousal infidelity.

As the intermediate components in the process of forgiveness, attribution, and empathy can also be

affected by intrapersonal and interpersonal resources that noninvolved partners can draw upon (the left part

of the model in Figure 1). Below, we will review the literature on intrapersonal and interpersonal coping

resources that facilitate benign attributions and empathy and further lead to forgiveness of spousal


FIGURE 1 The conceptual framework

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1.3 | Intrapersonal and interpersonal coping resources and forgiveness

Extant literature on factors that facilitate forgiveness processes has examined mostly Western culture. Our review

will draw in part on Western literature and will also include the smaller literature in Chinese culture. We also

discuss other culturally appropriate factors that may be relevant to forgiveness processes after spousal infidelity.

These factors are grouped into three latent constructs including solidarity‐oriented personality, marital bond, andperceived reconciliation motivation of involved partners.

The intrapersonal resource in our model is solidarity‐oriented personality, the propensity to maintainharmony and cohesion in interpersonal relationships, which consists of three components, forgivingness,

harmony, and graciousness. People with solidarity‐oriented personality tend to seek solidarity with othersthrough forgiving, seeking a harmonious resolution of differences, and acting graciously. Noninvolved

partners vary in their dispositions to forgive. Researchers have found that individual differences in

personality account for 22–44% of the variance in people’s willingness to forgive after a specific hurtful

event in interpersonal relationships (McCullough & Hoyt, 2002). People high in a forgiving personality are

more likely to generate benign attributions and appraisals on relational transgressions and to be empathic

toward the transgressor (McCullough, 2001).

Studies in Chinese culture and other collectivistic societies (e.g., Japan) have shown that harmony and

graciousness were associated with both trait forgivingness and state forgiveness (Fu, Watkins, & Hui, 2004; Fu,

Watkins, & Hui, 2008; Kurniati, Worthington, Kristi Poerwandari, Ginanjar, & Dwiwardani, 2017; Sandage, Hill, &

Vang, 2003). Seeking harmony is strongly related to decisional forgiveness but weakly related to emotional

forgiveness (Hook, 2007), which is because people high in harmony and graciousness choose to forgive so as to

maintain social harmony (i.e., achieved through a decision about one’s actions), but not necessarily to obtain a

personal, internal feeling of inner peace (Hook, Worthington, & Utsey, 2009). All these studies targeted general

populations (e.g., college students). It remains unknown whether solidarity‐oriented personality would helpindividuals forgive when spousal infidelity occurs.

In addition to intrapersonal resources (i.e., solidarity‐oriented personality), noninvolved partners may also relyon two interpersonal resources: marital bond and perceived reconciliation motivation. We propose that the marital

bond consists of three components, satisfaction, commitment, and marital affection. Researchers have examined

the power of a committed and satisfying marital relationship in facilitating forgiveness. Higher levels of marital

commitment and satisfaction have been found to be associated with a greater tendency to forgive intimate

partners for a wide range of transgressions in marriage (Fehr et al., 2010; Fincham & Beach, 2007; Finkel et al.,

2002). According to interdependence theory, when adverse events (e.g., infidelity) occur and threaten relationships,

partners with highly satisfied and committed relationships often have the motive to maintain the relationship

because they have invested considerable resources in the relationship and wish to maintain the rewards brought

about by their relationships (Rusbult, Hannon, Stocker, & Finkel, 2005). Thus, a strong commitment and high marital

satisfaction might motivate noninvolved partners to maximize the likelihood to sustain relationships through

forgiveness (Allemand, Amberg, Zimprich, & Fincham, 2007; Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer, 2003).

Satisfaction and intimacy emphasized in the West (Allemand et al., 2007) might not be sufficient indicators of

the marital bond between Chinese partners. Chen and Li (2007) argued that Chinese people usually give more

priority to their families’ existence, harmony, solidarity, glory, prosperity, and duration, rather than personal

interests, goals, welfare, and personal experience of intimacy. Chen and Li (2007) proposed a concept of Enqing (恩

情) to identify feelings of gratitude and admiration as particular forms of marital affection, but not including

intimacy. This concept is reflected in a Chinese common saying, “一日夫妻百日恩 (yi ri fu qi bai ri en)”, which means

that a day together as husband and wife means endless conjugal love and gratitude. Gratitude and admiration

develop from conjugal love and role fulfillment, which are related to couples’ responsibilities and obligations in

marriage (Chen & Li, 2007). A Chinese value is always to be grateful for what their spouse has done or has killed for

the family. After infidelity, previously accumulated gratitude and admiration towards the spouse may help the

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noninvolved partners to kindle the motivation to forgive. Thus, in the present study, we integrated marital affection

(Enqing), including admiration and gratitude, with commitment and satisfaction to form a latent construct, called the

marital bond, and we examined its effect on decisional and emotional forgiveness.

The second interpersonal coping resource is perceived reconciliation motivation, the perceived motive to

reconcile by involved partners. The benefit of forgiveness on personal healing is contingent upon involved

partners being trustworthy (Strelan, in press). Sandage, Worthington, Hight, and Berry (2000) suggested that

when transgressors acknowledged that they had caused hurt, apologized, initiated communication, expressed

guilt, and engaged in reassuring behaviors to compensate for the hurt, injured ones are more likely to reduce

negative emotions and forgive transgressors. Similarly, a few studies on forgiveness in infidelity have

suggested that noninvolved partners were more likely to forgive involved partners if involved partners

showed genuine remorse and compensation behaviors rather than minimizing the severity of a transgression

and defensively denying responsibility (Fitness, 2001; Rusbult et al., 2005; Rusbult, Kumashiro, Finkel, &

Wildschut, 2002). These findings suggest that partner’s reconciliation motivation could be reflected in two

types of behaviors: acknowledgment of responsibility and assurance of future commitment to marriage. We

propose that noninvolved partners who perceive greater motivation for reconciliation among their spouses

would have more benign attributions and empathic responses towards involved partners, which in turn

promote their forgiveness.

1.4 | The present study

In this study, we investigated forgiveness processes after spousal infidelity using a relatively large clinical sample of

noninvolved partners. We conceptualized forgiveness as two related but different processes: Decisional

forgiveness and emotional forgiveness. We hypothesized that intrapersonal resources (i.e., solidarity‐orientedpersonality) and interpersonal resources (i.e., marital bond and reconciliation motivation of involved partners)

would be positively associated with decisional and emotional forgiveness directly. Moreover, the three resources

would be indirectly associated with decisional and emotional forgiveness through the mediation of attribution and

empathy. In addition, we hypothesized that the associations between the three resources and emotional

forgiveness might be mediated by decisional forgiveness. By testing this integrated model, we explored the

differentiated mechanisms underlying decisional and emotional forgiveness.


2.1 | Participants and sampling procedure

The study protocol was approved by the ethical panel at The University of Hong Kong. Six counseling agencies and

one hotline service agency in Shenzhen, China, consented to distribute recruitment letters to their clients. We sent

an email to practitioners, who volunteered to help in the seven agencies, to introduce the study. Practitioners then

introduced the study to potential participants and invited them to participate in the study. All potential participants

were clients who had experienced or were experiencing spousal infidelity in different‐sex marriages. Onlynoninvolved partners who were or had been married were included as participants in the present study. We then

provided participants with a questionnaire. Participants read and signed a consent form, completed the

questionnaire, and received a gift book as a token of appreciation.

The final sample consisted of 154 participants (30 husbands and 124 wives). The age of participants ranged

from 26 to 56 (M = 36.05, SD = 5.97). Approximately 70.1% of the participants remained in their marriage with the

involved partners, and 29.9% of the participants were separated or divorced from the involved partners. In

addition, 44.8% reported that they had been married for more than 10 years, and 55.2% reported marriage for less

than 10 years. The average duration of marriage was 11.50 years (SD = 6.79). Furthermore, 23 participants (14.9%)

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experienced only partners’ sexual infidelity, 14 participants (9.1%) experienced only partners’ emotional infidelity,

81 participants (52.6%) experienced both partners’ sexual and emotional infidelity, and 36 participants (23.4%)

reported infidelity but did not specify the type of infidelity. With regard to the time elapsed since the infidelity, it

was less than 1 year for 33 participants (21.4%), 1–5 year for 90 participants (58.4%), and more than 5 years for 31

participants (20.1%). The average time elapsed since the infidelity was 3.76 years (SD = 3.57). Most participants

reported that they had one (58.4%) or more than one child (26.6%), and only 23 participants reported that they had

no children. Regarding self‐infidelity history, 11.7% participants reported that they had been unfaithful to theirpartners. Yearly income of the participants ranged from 0 to 1 million Chinese Yuan (mean = 74,071,

median = 50,000).

2.2 | Measures

Participants reported demographic and background information, including age, gender, length of marriage, whether

they had children (and how many), types of infidelity, and time elapsed since the infidelity. Existing literature still

lacks a consensus about the best way to define infidelity. In this study, any form of secret activity, ranging from

emotional involvement with another (online or in person), through holding hands, cuddling, or kissing to penetrative

vaginal and/or anal sex, qualified as marital infidelity.

2.2.1 | Forgiveness

Decisional forgiveness was operationalized as inhibition of harmful intentions and presence of prosocial intentions

toward involved partners. Participants were instructed to specify their decisional forgiveness in regard to the

spousal infidelity they experienced and answered the eight‐item Chinese version of the decisional forgiveness scale(Hook, 2007). Translation and back translation procedures (Brislin, 1970) were applied to ensure the equivalence in

the meaning of the Chinese version and the original English version. The scale contains two subscales: Presence of

prosocial intentions and inhibition of harmful intentions. Sample items are “If I see him or her, I will act friendly” and

“I will not seek revenge upon him or her.” Participants indicated the degree to which they agreed with each

statement using a 5‐point response format ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) in regard to thespousal infidelity. The mean score of the 8 items was used in data analysis. Higher scores indicated higher levels of

decisional forgiveness. The Cronbach’s ɑ for the scale was .77.

Emotional forgiveness was operationalized as the reduction of negative emotions and the presence of positive

emotions toward the unfaithful partner. Participants were instructed to specify their emotional forgiveness in

regard to the spousal infidelity and answered the eight‐item Chinese version of the Emotional Forgiveness Scale(Hook, 2007). The translation and back‐translation procedures were conducted to develop the Chinese version ofthis scale. The scale consists of two subscales: Presence of positive emotions and reduction of negative emotions.

Sample items are “I care about him or her” and “I no longer feel upset when I think of him or her.” Participants

indicated the degree to which they agreed with each statement using a 5‐point response format ranging from 1(strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) in regard to the spousal infidelity. The mean score of the 8 items was used in

data analysis. Higher scores indicated higher levels of emotional forgiveness. The Cronbach’s ɑ for the scale

was .67.

2.2.2 | Solidarity‐oriented personality

Three scales were used to indicate the three aspects of solidarity‐oriented personality: forgivingness, harmony, andgraciousness.

Forgivingness describes one’s general tendency across many situations and overtime to respond to offenses by

forgiving them, which was measured by the trait forgivingness scale (TFS; Berry, Worthington, O’Connor, Parrott, &

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Wade, 2005). The TFS was previously used in forgiveness research and showed to be psychometrically adequate in

the Chinese population (C. Zhang & Luo, 2011). A sample item is, “I try to forgive others even when they don’t feel

guilty for what they did.” The TFS consists of 10 items to assess a participant’s self‐appraisal of his or her pronenessto forgive interpersonal transgressions. Items were rated on a response format from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5

(strongly agree). The mean score of the 10 items was used in the data analysis, with higher scores indicating stronger

forgiving personality. The Cronbach’s ɑ for the 10 items was .79.

Harmony refers to the cultural emic personality of one’s inner peace of mind, contentment, interpersonal

harmony, avoidance of conflict, and maintenance of equilibrium. It was evaluated using a 13‐item scale derivedfrom the harmony subscale of the Chinese Personality Assessment Inventory (Cheung, Cheung, & Zhang, 2004). A

sample item is, “I always try to get along with others in a harmonious way.” Participants responded to the 13 items

using a 5‐point response format, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strong agree). The mean score of the 13items was used in the analysis, with higher scores indicating higher orientation toward the pursuit of harmony in

the respondent’s personality. The Cronbach’s ɑ for the scale was .69.

Graciousness depicts a willingness to accommodate and forgive others. It was evaluated using the subscale of

graciousness versus meanness from the Chinese personality assessment inventory (Cheung et al., 2004). A sample

item is, “I rarely bear a grudge.” The participants responded to 10 items using a 5‐point response format, rangingfrom 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strong agree). The mean score of the 10 items was used in the analysis, with higher

scores indicating higher levels of graciousness. The Cronbach’s ɑ for the scale was .75.

2.2.3 | Marital bond

Three indicators of marital bond are affection, satisfaction, and commitment. Participants were asked how they

perceived their marriages before the spousal infidelity incident, and thus rated marital bond retrospectively.

Affection refers to feelings of admiration and gratitude towards the partner. Affection was measured by a

subscale of the marital affection inventory (Chen & Li, 2007). It consists of two components: feelings of admiration

and feelings of gratitude. Sample items are, “I admire the way my spouse performs his/her role as a husband/wife”

and “My spouse contributes to this family in every way, which would be hard for me to repay.” Participants

responded to 16 items using a 5‐point rating format ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The meanscore of the 16 items was used in the analysis, with higher scores indicating greater affection toward the spouse.

The Cronbach’s ɑ for this scale was .91.

Satisfaction refers to the positive versus negative affect experienced in the marital relationship. It was examined

by the satisfaction subscale of the Investment Model Scale (Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew, 1998). Estimated reliability of

the scale has been calculated in Chinese dating couples, yielding an estimated internal consistency of 0.93 (Liu,

Zhao, Zhang, & Yang, 2015). The convergent validity of the scale was acceptable, indicated by a concurrent

correlation of 0.63 between the scale and the Chinese version of the satisfaction subscale of dyadic adjustment

scale (Chi, Epstein, Fang, Lam, & Li, 2013; Spanier, 1976). Participants responded to 5 items using a 5‐pointresponse format ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) to indicate to what extent they were satisfied

with their marriage. A sample item is, “I feel satisfied with our marriage.” The mean score of the 5 items was used in

the analysis, with higher scores indicating higher levels of marital satisfaction. The Cronbach’s ɑ for this scale was


Commitment refers to the intent to persist, long‐term orientation, and psychological attachment in the maritalrelationship. It was examined by the commitment subscale of the investment model scale (Rusbult et al., 1998).

Estimated reliability and evidence for the construct validity of the scale have been computed in Chinese dating

couples, yielding an estimated internal consistency of 0.76 (Liu et al., 2015). Participants responded to 7 items on a

5‐point response format ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) to indicate to what degree they werecommitted to their marital relationship. A sample item is, “I think our marriage can last for a very long time.” The

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mean score of the 7 items was used in the analysis, with higher scores indicating higher commitment to marriage.

The Cronbach’s ɑ for the scale was .86.

2.2.4 | Perceived reconciliation motivation of involved partners

This refers to the perceived motivation of the involved partner to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It was

measured by the Seeking Forgiveness Scale developed in a qualitative study interviewing 18 noninvolved partners

and 3 involved partners by the first author (Chi, 2011). Twenty items were developed from qualitative interviews.

An exploratory factor analysis with the 20 items was performed using the principal‐axis factoring. The final two‐factor solution with 10 items accounted for 66.6% of the total item variance. The two correlated factors were

named acknowledgment (4 items) and assurance and amends (6 items). The four items making up acknowledgment

were, “He/she takes the relationship for granted,” “He/she has not admitted the hurt this event caused me,” “He/

she is not remorseful,” and “He/she blames himself/herself.” The six items making up assurance and amends were,

“He/She has expressed his/her apology by various concrete activities,” “He/She understands that I am suffering,”

“He/She has tried as well as possible to repair our relationship,” “He/she is concerned with my emotions,” “He/She

wants to continue our relationship,” and “He/she has explained to me what happened.” Participants responded to

the 10 items on a 5‐point response format ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) to indicate to whatdegree they perceived their partners’ reconciliation motivation. The mean score of the 10 items after proper

reverse coding on alternating items was used in the analysis, with higher scores indicating higher levels of partner’s

reconciliation motivation. The Cronbach’s ɑ for the scale was .90.

2.2.5 | Cognitive and emotional pathway

Attribution refers to the explanations and accountability that a partner makes for an event in their marriage. It was

assessed using the 6‐item relationship attribution measure (Fincham & Bradbury, 1992). Participants rated theextent to which they agreed with each of the six statements using a 6‐point response format from 1 (disagreestrongly) to 6 (agree strongly) in regard to the spousal infidelity they experienced. Sample items are, “The reasons for

my partner’s behavior towards me are not likely to change” and “My partner’s behavior was on purpose rather than

unintentional.” The mean score of the 6 items formed the attribution index. High scores reflected more benign

causal attribution (i.e., less controllable, less stable, and less global in the marriage) and more benign responsibility

attribution regarding the spousal infidelity (i.e., less intentionality, less selfish motivation, and less blame-

worthiness). The Cronbach’s ɑ for the six items was .70.

Empathy refers to one’s ability to recognize, perceive, and feel the emotions of another. The empathy level

toward their partners at the time of participating in the study was measured by the mean score of eight affect

adjectives (sympathetic, empathic, concerned, moved, compassionate, warm, softhearted, and tender). The eight‐item empathy measure has been used by Coke, Batson, & McDavis (1978) in their work on empathy and altruism

and in studies of forgiveness (McCullough et al., 1997; McCullough et al., 1998). Participants rated the items on a

6‐point response format ranging from 0 (not at all) to 5 (extremely) to indicate the extent to which they felt eachdescriptive emotion towards their partner at the time of the rating. The mean score of the 8 items formed the

empathy index. Higher scores reflect higher levels of empathy towards the partner. The Cronbach’s ɑ for the eight

items was .85.

2.3 | Data analysis procedures

All data in the current study were based on self‐reports from the participants. To eliminate concerns aboutcommon‐method variance, we first conducted Harman’s one‐factor test using exploratory factor analysis (EFA)with principal‐axis factoring method of extraction and no rotation. The first component that the EFA extracted

1904 | CHI ET AL.

accounted for 11.9% of the total variance, indicating that the common‐method variance was not of great concern(Aulakh & Gencturk, 2000). Then, we performed preliminary analyses to evaluate the descriptive statistics and

correlations among the study variables using SPSS 20.0. Bivariate correlations were conducted to test initial

relations among the variables. Finally, structural equation models (SEM, see Figure 1) were tested using Mplus

Version 7.0. Model‐fit criteria used in this study were Chi‐square statistic (χ2), a goodness‐of‐fit index (thecomparative fit index; CFI), the Tucker‐Lewis index (TLI), the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA),and the standardized root mean residual (SRMR). A model is typically considered as acceptable and fits the data

when the CFI and TLI values are larger than 0.90 and the RMSEA and SRMR values are less than 0.08 (Hu &

Bentler, 1999). The significance of the indirect effect was tested with the bootstrapping methodology developed by

Preacher and Hayes (2008). The 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were estimated using 2,000 resampling bias‐corrected (BC) bootstrapping. If the CIs of indirect effects did not include 0, the indirect effects were considered



3.1 | Preliminary analysis

Descriptive statistics and bivariate correlational analyses are presented in Table 1. Basically, all independent

variables were positively associated with the two forgiveness scales, and most of them were statistically significant

(ps < .05). One‐way analysis of variance was used to explore the effects of demographic and socioeconomicvariables on decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness. In Table 2, we present the means and standard

deviations for observed dependent variables, as well as the analysis of variance, results examining the effects of

sociodemographic variables on decisional and emotional forgiveness. There were no significant differences in

decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness among various sociodemographic groups. Also, there were no

significant differences in decisional and emotional forgiveness (p = .38 and 2.07) between participants who

remained married and those who separated from or divorced their involved partners. Hence, we did not include any

of demographic and background variable as covariates in the subsequent path model.

TABLE 1 Intercorrelations, means, and standard deviations of variables included in the structural equationmodels

M SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

1. Forgivingness 3.28 .57

2. Harmony 3.63 .42 .38**

3. Graciousness 3.34 .53 .73** .35**

4. Affection 3.08 .65 −.01 .05 −.06

5. Satisfaction 3.29 .87 .14 .14 .12 .41**

6. Commitment 3.78 .73 .06 .23** .17* .30** .44**

7. Acknowledgment 2.92 1.01 ‐.05 .04 .03 .13 .11 .10

8. Assurance & amends 2.82 .89 ‐.13 −.11 −.12 .09 .03 −.04 .59**

9. Empathy 3.54 .99 .20* .04 .00 .23** .05 .03 .26** .38**

10. Attribution 2.63 .74 .16 .05 .22** .14 .10 .12 .43** .26** .25*

11. Decisional forgiveness 3.51 .60 .40** .15 .30** .18* .16 .12 .18* .20* .42** .38** ‐

12. Emotional forgiveness 3.02 .54 .32** .09 .24** .28** .31** .23** .29** .27** .48** .47** .53**

*p <.05.

**p <.01.

CHI ET AL. | 1905

3.2 | Decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness

We proposed that decisional forgiveness served as the pathway between intrapersonal and interpersonal coping

resources and emotional forgiveness (Figure 2). The model had a good fit to the data, χ2 = 29.769, df = 27, p = 0.325,

CFI = 0.992, TLI = 0.987, RMSEA = 0.026, SRMR = 0.045. Decisional forgiveness, solidarity‐oriented personality,marital bond, and partner’s reconciliation motivation accounted for 43.2% of the variance in emotional forgiveness.

Decisional forgiveness was positively associated with solidarity‐oriented personality and partner’s reconciliation

TABLE 2 The characteristics of spousal experienced marital infidelity





forgiveness Marital





Gender Infidelity type

Male (n = 30) 3.32 (.67) 2.91 (.50) Only emotion/

sexual (n = 37)

3.55 (.58) 3.07 (.60)

Female (n = 124) 3.55 (.58) 3.04 (.55) Both(n = 81) 3.50 (.58) 2.98 (.55)

F 3.77 1.26 Unknown

(n = 36)

3.49 (.68) 3.02 (.46)

η2 .02 .01 F .15 .35

Educationa η2 .00 .00

Primary (n = 64) 3.43 (.60) 2.95 (.56) History of self‐infidelity

Secondary (n = 45) 3.57 (.62) 3.11 (.47) No (n = 133) 3.54 (.59) 3.04 (.61)

Tertiary (n = 45) 3.58 (.59) 3.01 (.58) Yes (n = 18) 3.35 (.71) 3.00 (.59)

F 1.09 1.23 F 1.60 .07

η2 0.01 0.02 η2 .01 .00

Income level b Duration of


50,000 or less

(n = 85)

3.49 (.57) 3.59 (.66) 10 years or

less (n = 85)

3.52 (.63) 3.04 (.55)

More than 50,000

(n = 69)

2.95 (.49) 3.10 (.61) More than

10 years

(n = 69)

3.49 (.58) 2.99 (.54)

F .86 2.71 F .15 .31

η2 0.01 0.02 η2 0.00 0.00

Having a religion Number of


Yes (n = 39) 3.51 (.62) 3.08 (.56) Without children

(n = 23)

3.48 (.77) 3.06 (.58)

No (n = 115) 3.51 (.60) 2.99 (.53) One child

(n = 90)

3.55 (.57) 3.06 (.56)

F .04 .71 ≥Two children

(n = 41)

3.43 (.58) 2.90 (.46)

η2 0 0 F .63 1.13

η2 .01 .02

Note: a. Primary, high school and below, secondary, college, tertiary, university and above. b. Yearly income in RMB, 50,000

is the median of the current sample. *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001.

1906 | CHI ET AL.

motivation. Emotional forgiveness was positively associated with solidarity‐oriented personality, marital bond,partner’s reconciliation motivation, and decisional forgiveness.

We then tested the significance of the indirect effects from three types of coping resources on emotional

forgiveness through decisional forgiveness. The significance of the indirect effect was tested using the

bootstrapping methodology developed by Preacher and Hayes (2008). Decisional forgiveness was a pathway in

the relationship between solidarity‐oriented personality and emotional forgiveness. Higher scores on solidarity‐oriented personality predicted greater decisional forgiveness, which in turn predicted greater emotional

forgiveness (95% CI = [0.036, 0.190]). Decisional forgiveness was also a pathway in the relationship between

partner’s reconciliation motivation and emotional forgiveness (95% CI = [0.027, 0.297]).

3.3 | Role of attributions and empathy

We tested the roles of attributions and empathy in the relationships between coping resources and both decisional

and emotional forgiveness. The proposed model had an adequate fit to the data, χ2 = 49.504, df = 37, p = 0.082,

CFI = 0.973, TLI = 0.953, RMSEA = 0.047, SRMR = 0.045. The final model with standardized coefficients was

presented in Figure 3. Decisional forgiveness, solidarity‐oriented personality, marital bond, partner’s reconciliationmotivation, attribution, and empathy jointly accounted for 48.7% of the variance in emotional forgiveness. When

adding attribution and empathy as mediators, solidarity‐oriented personality did not significantly and directlypredict emotional forgiveness; instead, solidarity‐oriented personality predicted emotional forgiveness throughdecisional forgiveness, attribution, and empathy. The total indirect effect (95% CI = [0.057, 0.260]) was significant

and mainly reflected in the indirect effect through decisional forgiveness (95% CI = [0.005, 0.113]) but not through

attribution and empathy. This finding suggested that noninvolved partners high in solidarity‐oriented personalitywere more likely to have higher levels of decisional forgiveness, which in turn predicted higher levels of emotional

forgiveness. The direct effect from partner’s reconciliation motivation to emotional forgiveness was no longer

significant. The total indirect effect from partner’s reconciliation motivation to emotional forgiveness (95%

CI = [0.170, 0.579]) was reflected in the pathway through empathy (95% CI = [0.042, 0.280]) but not through other

pathways. Noninvolved partners who perceived greater partner’s reconciliation efforts showed higher levels of

empathy toward the involved partners, which in turn predicted higher levels of emotional forgiveness.

FIGURE 2 Decisional forgiveness as a pathway of the relationship between coping resources and emotionalforgiveness

CHI ET AL. | 1907

To examine the different mechanisms underlying decisional and emotional forgiveness, we also tested the

significance of the indirect pathways to decisional forgiveness. The total indirect effect from solidarity‐orientedpersonality to decisional forgiveness was significant (95% CI = [0.027, 0.173]), but the indirect effect from

attribution (95% CI = [−0.001, 0.098]) or empathy (95% CI = [−0.007, 0.115]) was not significant. It suggests that

both attributions and empathy exerting some effects on decisional forgiveness, but we cannot tease apart their

independent effects. The total indirect effect from partners’ reconciliation motivation to decisional forgiveness was

significant (95% CI = [0.132, 0.528]), which was reflected in the pathways from attribution (95% CI = [0.014, 0.264])

and empathy (95% CI = [0.041, 0.358]).


This study developed and tested an integrated model of forgiveness, elucidating the coping mechanisms involving

attributions and empathy underlying decisional and emotional forgiveness, which are influenced by intrapersonal

and interpersonal resources that the noninvolved partners have. To the best of our knowledge, the current study

was the first to examine both decisional and emotional forgiveness following spousal infidelity from the stress and

coping perspective in a quantitative study with a relatively large clinical sample and in a typical collectivistic

culture. By including both participants who maintained or terminated the marital relations with involved partners,

we were able to argue that forgiveness is an intrapersonal process regardless of the marital outcome.

4.1 | The stress and coping process

Our findings enrich the understanding of the underlying and complex coping processes of decisional and emotional

forgiveness. The results partially supported our proposed stress and coping framework in which intrapersonal

coping resources (i.e., solidarity‐oriented personality) and interpersonal coping resources (i.e., marital bond andreconciliation motivation of involved partners) affected appraisals of infidelity (i.e., attributions) and empathic

responses towards involved partners, which further predicted decisional and emotional forgiveness. Furthermore,

there are subtleties and nuances in the underlying coping mechanisms in predicting decisional or emotional

FIGURE 3 Mediating roles of attribution and empathy in the relationship between coping resources and forgiveness

1908 | CHI ET AL.

forgiveness. First, marital bond was positively associated with emotional forgiveness, but not decisional

forgiveness; moreover, this facilitating effect was not through attributions and empathy. Second, solidarity‐oriented personality facilitated emotional forgiveness through decisional forgiveness, which were mediated by

benign attributions and empathy. Third, perceiving partners’ motivation in seeking reconciliation could facilitate

both decisional and emotional forgiveness; moreover, both benign attributions and empathetic responses play

intermediate roles in this coping process.

4.2 | Effect of the solidarity‐oriented personality

The present study extends the literature by showing that a solidarity personality facilitates forgiveness toward

spousal infidelity in marital relationships. These findings extend previous attribution and empathy research in

marriage (Fincham & Bradbury, 1992; Fincham et al., 2002; Hall & Fincham, 2006) and the broader literature on the

association between forgiveness and personality (Fu et al., 2004; Hook et al., 2009). In addition, our findings show

that the total indirect effect through attributions and empathy from solidarity‐oriented personality to decisionalforgiveness was significant, but not individual indirect pathways. This suggests that attributions and empathy may

function together in facilitating decisional forgiveness, and we cannot specify how each independently predicts

decisional forgiveness. When noninvolved partners have a forgiving personality, are gracious, and tend to maintain

interpersonal harmony across situations, they might be inclined to interpret causes and responsibilities of spousal

infidelity more benignly. Meanwhile, noninvolved partners are more likely to broaden their focus beyond the

infidelity incident, appreciate the person for their inherent value, and accept their flawed humanness, and thus be

able to make a decision to forgive because of their propensity to maintain relational harmony and be gracious

(Exline, Kraft, Baumeister, Zell, & Witvliet, 2008). Inconsistent with previous findings suggesting that attribution

was antecedent to empathy (e.g., Fincham et al., 2002), we did not find such a significant pathway from benign

appraisals to following empathic reactions towards noninvolved partners. These two coping processes seems to

function simultaneously as intermediate mechanisms between solidarity‐oriented personality and decisionalforgiveness, which further predict emotional forgiveness.

4.3 | Effect of the marital bond

Our findings corroborate existing research on the power of the marital bond in facilitating forgiveness. Results in

the present study support the suggested links between closeness and forgiveness (Karremans et al., 2011),

commitment and forgiveness (Finkel et al., 2002), marital satisfaction and forgiveness (Allemand et al., 2007), and

relational quality and forgiveness (Fincham & Beach, 2007). In a Chinese context, marital affect (including gratitude

and admiration), together with commitment and satisfaction, directly help the noninvolved partner to kindle the

emotion and motivation to forgive. Moreover, emotional forgiveness might even occur without the primer of

decisional forgiveness in highly bonded couples. Moreover, inconsistent with previous findings (Fincham et al.,

2002; McCullough et al., 1997, 1998), neither attributions nor empathy was found to mediate the relationship

between marital bond and emotional forgiveness. The effect of the marital bond on forgiveness through attribution

and empathy that has been found in previous studies (e.g., Fincham et al., 2002) was not replicated in our study.

One possible explanation is that high preinfidelity affection provides a positive context for facilitating forgiveness.

The predicting effect of the marital bond on emotional forgiveness may not need to work through decisional

forgiveness, attribution, or empathy. Rather, it might be a spontaneous and pervasive salutary effect.

4.4 | Effect of perceiving the involved partner as desiring reconciliation

The facilitating effect of evaluating involved partners’ reconciliation motivation on stimulating emotional

forgiveness in noninvolved partners occurred indirectly from empathy. The sequential multiple mediating effects

CHI ET AL. | 1909

(i.e., partner’s reconciliation motivation to attribution/empathy to decisional forgiveness to emotional forgiveness)

did not approach significance. We found, however, that attributions and empathy mediated the link between

reconciliation motivation and decisional forgiveness. Taken together, attributions and empathy are potential

indirect pathways from partners’ reconciliation motivation to both decisional and emotional forgiveness.

Our findings are consistent with previous studies on seeking forgiveness. The involved partners’ sincere apology

and assurance exhibited profound power in healing interpersonal hurts (Kelley & Waldron, 2005), which can help

noninvolved partners to regain predictability and a sense of trust (Rusbult et al., 2005). Perceiving the

reconciliatory behaviors from involved partners may attenuate the attribution of the offense as less internal,

controllable, and less stable. Moreover, reconciliatory motivation usually conveys the idea that involved partners

have suffered from their own hurtful wrongdoing (McCullough et al., 1997; McCullough et al., 1998). Noninvolved

partners might care about guilt, distress, and loneliness that involved partners are experiencing. Increases in the

empathy‐elicited caring emotions for involved partners may reduce revenge and avoidance motivations, whichmight facilitate decisional forgiveness, and increase the benevolence toward noninvolved partners, which might in

turn facilitate emotional forgiveness. It is possible that a resentful noninvolved partner may underestimate his or

her involved partner’s true reconciliation motivation, but at the intrapersonal level of the noninvolved partner, the

perceived level of the partner’s reconciliation motivation is important to facilitate forgiveness as suggested by our


The use of help‐seeking individuals and inclusion of divorced individuals as the research sample increases theapplicability of the research findings to the population most likely to be seen by practitioners. We acknowledge that

divorce brings high levels of stress and may prolong the forgiveness process due to repeated hurts or feelings of

abandonment (Amato, 2000). For the couples who remained in the marriage, emotional forgiveness occurred with

trust building and involved partners’ persistent forgiveness‐seeking and noninvolved partners’ self‐reflection of thewhole event (Gordon et al., 2004). For those divorced, emotional forgiveness may be more difficult and prolonged

in the case of lacking interaction with the involved partners. It is more likely an inner reflection process to accept

imperfections of humanity, and recognize their personal responsibilities in the infidelity incident, leading to

empathy towards the suffering of involved partners (Chi, 2011).

4.5 | Differentiated processes of decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness

The overall analyses of the facilitators of decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness suggest that we should

not argue that decisional forgiveness must always come first before emotional forgiveness. The two processes

might be parallel and simultaneously occur, but they could be triggered by different mechanisms. In some cases, the

marital bond itself might be powerful enough to facilitate emotional forgiveness directly as suggested by our

findings. In some other cases, the process of forgiveness might start with a person’s decision or inclination to

forgive his or her involved partner. With the decision to forgive, individuals might make efforts to conquer negative

feelings toward involved partners, reappraise the meaning of spousal infidelity, and try to maintain marriage

(Worthington & Scherer, 2004). Thereafter, emotional forgiveness might occur when negative feelings are indeed

dissolved and positive feelings emerge (Worthington & Scherer, 2004). The finding that attribution and empathy

were not correlated also suggests that the appraisal of spousal infidelity and empathic responses towards involved

partners might not be necessarily linked to facilitate forgiveness, but functions differently in facilitating decisional

forgiveness and emotional forgiveness in presence with various coping resources.

To provide more information on potential sequences of the two forgiveness processes, we performed

supplementary analysis testing alternative models, which specified emotional forgiveness as a pathway of

decisional forgiveness (Figure S1). Briefly, the results show that the data also fit the alternative models well.

Individuals who had closer marital bond might have higher levels of emotional forgiveness, which could further lead

them to make a decision to forgive. People high in solidarity‐oriented personality may have higher levels ofdecisional forgiveness but the effect was direct and not going through emotional forgiveness. When individuals

1910 | CHI ET AL.

perceived that their partners had higher desires to reconcile, they experienced more positive emotions towards

their partners (empathy, emotional forgiveness), which facilitate the cognitive processes of forgiveness (decisional

forgiveness). Thus, it is possible that decisional and emotional forgiveness are parallel processes and triggered by

different coping resources and stress and coping processes. At least, our cross‐sectional data support this as apossibility even though we cannot really determine the sequence of the interplay among decisions to forgive and

emotional forgiveness with our data. Longitudinal data in subsequent studies that are aimed at illuminating

sequences of interactions among forgiveness experiences would be helpful to clarify frequent sequences of these

two forgiveness processes.

4.6 | Limitations of the study

Before turning to its implications, we need to acknowledge a number of limitations of this study. First, some

measures (e.g., commitment, satisfaction, trait forgiveness) were used in the present study for the first time and not

validated yet in a Chinese population. Also, the estimated internal consistency of the measure of emotional

forgiveness was relatively low in this study. This measure and other measures borrowed from Western literature

might need to be further evaluated and developed for use with Chinese and other Asian couples.

Second, we used a cross‐sectional research design. Thus, true causal relationships could not be established inthis study, and we cannot examine whether the relations between coping resources and the two types of

forgiveness are reciprocal or nonreciprocal. Also, it is impossible to determine an accurate temporal sequence of a

set of mediating variables. Our interpretation is admittedly speculative. Longitudinal research is required to further

examine our hypotheses in sequential multiple mediating models. We encourage future researchers to use

longitudinal designs to examine the reproducibility of the current findings on the mediating roles of attribution and

empathy, to examine the processes associated with decisional and emotional forgiveness.

Third, the retrospective nature of some measures in our data collection has its limitations. For example, the

effect of current well‐being may color the past event recall. We recruited our participants at about the time whenthe participants sought professional help. This recruiting method helped us to obtain people with different

experiences within their forgiveness processes and to understand the total spectrum of forgiveness. However,

given the vast range of time elapsed since infidelity, participants may be at different points in recovery or dealing

with the initial traumatic impact (Gordon et al., 2004), which may impact their forgiveness processes. This calls into

question the accuracy of retroactive reporting, which could easily be colored by selective memory or current mood

or recovery stages. More replication studies using longitudinal designs are needed.

Finally, reconciliation motivation of involved partners was reported by only noninvolved partners. This may or

may not be a true reflection of involved partners’ efforts to reconcile (or what would be their own self‐reportedefforts or motivation to reconcile). Dyadic data are preferred in future studies.

4.7 | Contributions

Despite these limitations, this study has made several potential contributions to our knowledge of forgiveness

following spousal infidelity. We have furthered thinking on the conceptualization of forgiveness in close

relationships in a typical collectivistic culture. Our findings support the differentiation of decisional forgiveness and

emotional forgiveness, which Western researchers have theorized about (Hook et al., 2009), thus increasing

cultural sensitivity of the concept of forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness with the aims of maintaining interpersonal

harmony is a salient feature of forgiveness in the Chinese context. However, that does not mean emotional

forgiveness is not important for Chinese people. In close relationships, emotional forgiveness is crucial to gaining

inner peace and moving on. Moreover, diving into the complex relationship between forgiveness and different

coping resources and mechanisms, our findings enrich the theoretical framework of the stress and coping model of

forgiveness. By including culturally relevant concepts (e.g., marital bond) and solidarity‐oriented personality traits

CHI ET AL. | 1911

(e.g., harmony and graciousness), our study lends culturally appropriate evidence and guidance for clinicians and

researchers who study forgiveness following spousal infidelity in a Chinese context.

The present study also lends empirical credence to the integration of decisional forgiveness and emotional

forgiveness into couple, marital, and family therapies. For noninvolved partners, a decision to forgive can provide

them a way out from the continuous distress, revenge, hatred, avoidance, and related negative moods (DiBlasio,

2000). Making a decision can empower a sense of control. In couple therapy, decisional forgiveness implies that

noninvolved partners have the intention to forgive and perhaps might have a commitment to make an effort to save

relationships. The positive hint may promote more forgiveness‐seeking behaviors from involved partners.Moreover, in facilitating decisional forgiveness, some discussion on the attribution of the infidelity would be

effective. Indeed, attribution training in forgiveness therapy has been used and has been found effective in case

studies (Al‐MabukAl‐Babuk, Dedrick, & Vanderah, 1998). Emotion‐focused strategies increasing empathy may alsoyield positive effects on forgiveness.

In sum, our findings lend empirical support to some processes and elements that have been implemented in

treatment to promote recovery from spousal infidelity (Gordon et al., 2008). Such treatment has the potential to be

disseminated in the Chinese context with the sensitivity to some culturally appropriate facilitators, such as

harmony‐oriented personality and graciousness and marital affection (Enqing).


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of

this article: Preparation of this manuscript was supported by Grant MYRG2018‐00098‐FSS from the ResearchCouncil at University of Macau and Grant 31700972 from National Natural Science Foundation of China.


Peilian Chi


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Additional supporting information may be found online in the Supporting Information section.

How to cite this article: Chi P, Tang Y, Worthington EL, Chan CLW, Lam DOB, Lin X. Intrapersonal and

interpersonal facilitators of forgiveness following spousal infidelity: A stress and coping perspective.

J. Clin. Psychol. 2019;75:1896–1915.

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