The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Role of Forgiveness in Chinese Marriages

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Researchers have long established that stable marriages benefit everyone—the couples themselves, their children, extended networks, and even society as a whole. So it is to the benefit of all of us to study what precisely makes for such stable marriages, which seem ever-more elusive. Toward this goal, a group of Chinese researchers sought recently to examine the role of forgiveness in the relationships of Chinese newlywed couples.

By way of background, the researchers open with reasons why their focus is so important. “Although there is substantial literature on the interpersonal predictors for divorce and relationship stability. . .  . previous research has focused extensively on the impact of negative factors, and has not paid sufficient attention to the role of positive interpersonal processes in marriage dissolution, such as forgiveness, commitment, and sacrifice.” This is particularly true for forgiveness, which previous research has identified as the “cornerstone” of a stable marriage. In addition, most research in this field has focused on “Western couples from individualistic cultures,” and the researchers believe that the dynamic may be different for Chinese couples, who are more collectively oriented.

For their purposes, the researchers define two different types of forgiveness: 1) “decisional forgiveness,” or the act of “reducing unforgiveness (e.g., a cognitive decision to forgive)”; and 2) “emotional forgiveness,” which refers to “increasing positive emotion.” For previous generations of Chinese couples, “decisional forgiveness” may have been more important, because marriage existed not primarily to make the couples themselves happy but as “a means of promoting the goals of familyism and group harmony.” For current generations of Chinese young people, however, emotional forgiveness may be more important, as most newlywed Chinese were born after the 1979 “One-Child Policy,” and thus their “maturing experiences are often characterized by parental indulgence, which may contribute to their emphasis on expression of emotion and self-interest within interpersonal relationships.” While the divorce rate in China is still quite low, it has been rising lately—from 0.18% per 1,000 couples in 1978, to 2.8% in 2015.

For their purposes, the researchers glean data from the Chinese Newlyweds Longitudinal Study, “a 3-year longitudinal study examining factors affecting the marital quality and stability of couples in China.” “Newlyweds” are defined as those couples married for less than four years, who have not yet had children. The final sample was 203 couples, who answered survey questions concerning marital stability and marital quality, as well as questions regarding the forgiveness (both decisional and emotional) of a specific offense.

The researchers found “that emotional forgiveness, rather than decisional forgiveness, is one of the most important contributing factors of long-term marital stability.” They continued, “When the impact of marital quality was accounted for, the direct effects of decisional forgiveness on the concurrent level of marital stability was only significant for husbands.” They suspect that this different between husbands and wives may “reflect differences in how men and women manage forgiveness experiences and responses to transgression in their romantic relationships.” Because women are “socialized” in marriage to do more emotional work—i.e. express more emotion, discuss emotion, etc.—they may be less concerned with decisional than emotional forgiveness. Furthermore, “it appears that the partner results were mixed. For wives, their marital quality mediated the association between their emotional forgiveness and husbands’ marital stability.” In other words, “wives’ emotional forgiveness was indirectly associated with the husbands’ marital stability through wives’ marital quality.” The researchers speculate that this may be because wives’ emotional well-being is often seen as the “barometer” for how well a relationship is functioning.

This study has its limitations. (The couples were of a higher income and education level, for one.) Nonetheless, it provides some interesting commentary on the glue that keeps a marriage together. 

(Qiong He et al., “Forgiveness, Marital Quality, and Marital Stability in the Early Years of Chinese Marriage: An Actor-Partner Interdependence Mediation Model,” Frontiers in Psychology 9.1520 [September 2018]: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01520, Web.)