Our blessed problem

~ Disclaimer: This essay includes descriptions of the plot of the series Isabel. If you don’t know of the events of the life of Queen Isabella I of Castile or of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and you are interested in watching the series without knowing anything about the plot, I don’t recommend reading this essay. ~

Anyone with a television or a subscription to Netflix, be it yours or your aunt’s, will have noticed that when movies or series have romance in them, it tends to be almost exclusively romance in its initial stages, without showing much of its subsequent stages. They tend to focus on the falling in love, but rarely on the maintenance of the relationship over time. Personally, after seeing what seem like hundreds of movies, I got tired of observing the same stage of love over and over again. Because of this, I find it immensely refreshing when I find representations that follow love in more than one of its stages, illustrating relationships that stand the test of time. Recently, I found a gem for all of those who, like me, long for stories that paint a more complete image of love: a Spanish series called Isabel.

Isabel chronicles the life and rein of Queen Isabella I of Castile together with that of her husband, King Ferdinand II of Aragon. There isn’t a single thing about this series that I haven’t thought was magnificent; the music, the costumes, the cinematography, the acting – they’re all great. However, my favorite part of the story is indoubtedly the plot, which is strongly anchored in Isabella and Ferdinand’s marriage (it’s worth adding that the series has been praised for being historically accurate). The series follows the couple from their first encounter all the way up to their earthly goodbye when Isabella dies, and it doesn’t leave out or diminish the difficulties that they faced during the length of their marriage. The tensions between Isabella and Ferdinand throughout the course of their marriage are represented just as much as all of the joys that they shared. After years of looking for this type of story, I’d finally found my diamond in the pile of cubic zirconias.

In the series, we are shown that Isabella and Ferdinand’s marriage was planned with political objectives in mind; however, we soon see their union evolve into something that goes beyond political or financial objectives. Of this, Isabella’s most perceptive adviser says, “We married them because it was convenient, like so many other princes and princesses do -without knowing one another-, but these two have met…and they love each other. That is our blessed problem.” The genuineness of their relationship, though, wasn’t without its disadvantages: when the heart is at stake, both the joys and the offenses are experienced in a more profound way.

By looking at another notable marriage in Isabel, it’s evident how different things are when a union is formed and maintained exclusively for political purposes. The marriage of Isabella’s brother, King Henry IV of Castile, with Joan of Portugal was just that. When Joan has an extra-marital affair and Henry finds out about it, the first thing we see is a statesman making a report of the incurred damages and taking the necessary steps to salvage his reputation and the legitimacy of his offspring. He was angry, but it’s clear that his reaction wasn’t the product of something intimate like love for his wife or respect for his marital vows; rather, it was the product of a threat to his reign and his reputation –another issue of the state to deal with. Since the link that united Henry and Joan was only political interest, the offense of infidelity harmed the ruler more than it did the man.

On the other hand, couples united by mutual love and respect, like Isabella and Ferdinand, experience problems and offenses in marriage in a much more intimate and profound way. By seeing the representation of their marriage in Isabel, I realized that in this truth is rooted one of the most interesting complexities of love. Because they love one another, they suffer the blessed problem of love: the actions of each person will be important to and will personally affect the other and sometimes even hurt them, but without undoing or diminishing their love and affection over time.

In one part of the series that explores this aspect of love, Isabella and Ferdinand spend some time apart while tending to their respective kingdoms, and during this time they have a serious conflict. The conflict arises because, behind Ferdinand’s back, Isabella begins to negotiate a peace treaty with France, the enemy of Ferdinand’s kingdom. Out of loyalty to his father, the king of Aragon, Ferdinand flatly refused to negotiate; however, Isabella continued the negotiations behind his back. When Ferdinand finds out about these events through his own means, he feels betrayed and mocked as a man and as king. The hurt and anger he feels is even greater because at the same time he learned that his father was dying and was under the impression that Ferdinand had betrayed him by negotiating with his enemies.

When Ferdinand confronts Isabel about her betrayal, with the wound still gaping, he shouts that he’ll never forgive her. His reaction reflects that Isabel’s betrayal didn’t affect him in a removed way, but rather in a personal way. In contrast to Henry, who took his wife’s betrayal as a matter of the state, Ferdinand felt Isabel’s betrayal as that of his spouse. In his marriage with Isabella the heart was always at stake, and as such, the one who was most hurt was the man, not the king.

Eventually, despite his assertion that he’d never forgive, when Ferdinand is reunited with Isabella after the conflict, he forgives her after hearing her sincere apology. Ferdinand makes it clear that, in spite of the pain it caused, Isabella’s offense didn’t undo or diminish the love and affection he had for her. Just like that, Ferdinand forgives an offense that under his code of honor he shouldn’t have forgiven.

Ferdinand isn’t the only one of the two that at one point is faced with a grave offense and opts to forgive; eventually, it is Isabella’s turn to forgive. Only a couple of years after getting married, Isabella finds out that Ferdinand fathered a child with another woman. Isabella, at that time pregnant, is overcome with sadness and pain, and perhaps in part due to that, she gives birth to her child prematurely. The baby is born dead, leaving Isabella to grieve the loss of her child. When Ferdinand tries to talk to her about what happened, he encounters a shattered Isabella, who in between sobs tells him, “You said you wouldn’t fail me.”

Unlike her brother Henry, who when faced with the same offense acted first and foremost to protect his political interests, Isabella saw damaged the trust that she had in her spouse to be faithful to her and to their wedding vows. In her marriage with Ferdinand, the heart was always at stake since he had always been, first and foremost, her husband. Because of this, the offense of infidelity hurt the woman more than it did the queen.

Seeing the pain that engulfs Isabella due to his infidelity and the loss of the baby, Ferdinand sincerely laments what he did and says he would do anything to protect Isabella from that suffering. While he holds her in her arms, he tells her he loves her and that he wanted the child they lost as much as she did. Isabella accepts his embrace and his consolation, and without another word she forgives the offense that no woman should accept.

When you take a step back and from there and see the respective offenses of Isabella and Ferdinand, it is very easy and tempting to make accusing questions. Why do both of them forgive offenses so grave and hurtful? Why do they stay together despite the fact that both of them deserve better? These questions are fair and deserve to be considered and debated when we see couples confronting such large errors. However, in the case of Isabella and Ferdinand, the response to those questions is relatively simple: because they love each other. They suffer the blessed problem of love: the actions of each person will be important to and will personally affect the other and sometimes even hurt them, but without undoing or diminishing their love and affection over time.

To me, the fact that love can endure and forgive failures, even the gravest ones, is evidence of its nature. When I think of couples like Isabella and Ferdinand, couples that genuinely forgive and decide to continue walking forward together, it becomes evident to me the truth of a phrase that always occupies a place in the back of my mind: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Love is, by its nature, tolerant; it endures in the face of challenges and offenses.

This aspect of love, though it sounds noble, can be what Isabella’s adviser indicated: a kind of problem. Love disposes us to an intimate experience, and the truth is that that puts us in a vulnerable position. The actions, good or bad, of our loved ones and our romantic partners will be important to us and will personally affect us, and at times they will even hurt us. In any case, despite how much they hurt us and fail us, we’ll conserve our love and affection for them. In this way, love leaves us in a vulnerable position because it leaves us willing to accept things we shouldn’t: failures and offenses of all sizes and all of the hurt and discord that they bring. Seeing ourselves tied to our loved ones by this bond of love, we can even feel like we don’t have any control. It can also make us feel that love takes advantage of our ability to endure and forgive. Who hasn’t at some point found themselves asking, “Why did I forgive this person despite everyone else’s advice? Despite what my own sense of reason tells me?” Because of this, the tolerant nature of love presents us with a problem.

This problem, however, has a side that redeems it, even if only up to a certain point. The same love that can make us feel weak when it challenges us to endure and forgive all kinds of offenses can also make us strong. This is because it drives us to forgive when there is a part of us that tries its hardest to make sure that we don’t and that tells us we should lock ourselves up in our anger and disappointment. Love encourages us to develop the virtue of tolerance, and it encourages us to forgive and try to make coexistence work again after suffering an offense, which is usually more difficult than leaving or giving up. When we take the tolerant nature of love and add to it our will to continue forward and maintain a commitment, the result is the part of love that sanctifies us. It is the part that can make a problem something blessed.

When both people in a relationship and more so in a marriage give themselves to that sanctifying love, what results is a relationship that surpasses the initial stages of love and stands the test of time. And in all honesty, of all of the representations of love that I’ve seen both on the screen and in real life, I’ve never seen one that inspires in me as much respect and admiration as this kind. Couples like Isabella and Ferdinand are products of the giving of oneself to sanctifying love. They are couples that together intimately experience all the joys and all the tensions, maintaining mutual love and respect throughout, and in that way inscribe stories of great richness and complexity. They are couples that like Isabella and Ferdinand have given themselves to love and to all the pain, tolerance, and affection it supposes and have embraced the fact that love is a blessed problem.

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