Is How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) the good guy he claims to be? Or is his romantic journey more self-indulgent and sometimes sinister than he claims it is? What if he’s the bad guy? In this video, we take an honest look at Ted Mosby.
One of the underlying assumptions of How I Met Your Mother is that Ted Mosby is a textbook “good guy.” He’s basically a gender-swapped version of the classic starry-eyed female heroine from so many sitcoms and romantic comedies – idealistic, vulnerable, and looking for his soulmate.
Ted Mosby: “It’s like, okay, I’m ready, where is she?” – How I Met Your Mother 01x01
But what if this given premise is wrong? What if instead of being a great guy, Ted is actually a delusional narcissist who only cares about what he wants, no matter who he hurts? What if he’s the bad guy? Here’s our take on why Ted Mosby is actually the secret villain of How I Met Your Mother.
Ted’s Damaging Delusions
From the very first episode, How I Met Your Mother presents Ted as a sweet, special guy who should be endeared to us by his sensitive desire for a blissful happily ever after with “The One.” But over time, Ted’s romantic ideas come to appear more like narcissistic delusions which he projects onto a series of unlucky women who get caught up in his path of destruction. When we say that Ted is delusional in this context, we mean that he holds false beliefs “based on an incorrect interpretation of reality.” He believes that anything he feels for another person must be real and reciprocal because he interprets reality as a romantic epic in which he is the protagonist. And he refuses to allow other people’s perspectives and emotions to factor into his assessment of facts.
We see this from the moment in the first episode when Ted quickly decides that Robin is his dream girl, even though they just met and his intensity makes her visibly uncomfortable. Robin’s feelings and interpretation of reality don’t matter to Ted, except insofar as they’re obstacles to be overcome. His desires take precedence over the desires of others – his feelings determine the truth.
Robin Scherbatsky: “It’s a great look. But you’re looking at the wrong girl.”
Ted Mosby: “No, I’m not.”
Robin Scherbatsky: “Yes you are.” – How I Met Your Mother 01x02
Ted is the kind of guy who won’t even apologize when he’s clearly wrong: a sign that he’s unwilling to question his perspective of events or challenge his assumption that, because he’s inherently virtuous, nothing he does can be that bad. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, said that when one is wrapped up in delusional behavior, “he becomes a madman.” And Ted’s delusions frequently lead to behavior that makes him look like a mad man to others.
After his initial failed pursuit of Robin, he’s so insistent on bringing her as a plus-one to a wedding that he almost breaks up the couple getting married in the process. But when at the last minute Robin can’t make the wedding, Ted quickly projects his romantic delusions onto a new target, Victoria. And just like that, Ted has moved on from the “love of his life” Robin to someone whose name he doesn’t even know.
The show is full of examples where Ted acts selfishly and screws over women, while his flattering idea of himself allows him to justify a pattern of harmful behavior. Take the time that he uses a matchmaking service, only to have no matches, likely because his standards are so absurdly specific. When it turns out the one woman he’s compatible with has already been matched up, Ted does the obvious thing and sneaks into her files, visits her office under false pretense, and then uses stolen information to trick her into loving him. Why should it matter that she and her fiancé are looking forward to their wedding if Ted’s dream of “The One” is at stake?
There’s the episode where he aggressively pursues, even stalks, Maggie, the “ultimate girl next door”, using his self-perception as “the good guy who wants love” as cover for treating a vulnerable woman just out of a relationship like a prize to be won. Or when he leaves his own mother’s wedding and refuses to give a speech, because he thinks it’s not fair that his mother is getting remarried before he’s had a chance to have a wedding.
Ted can’t conceive of a world where his desires aren’t validated by reality, and his single-minded faith in his fantasies makes him incredibly skillful at explaining why all of those previously mentioned mistakes and manipulations were in service of a bigger “good guy” picture. Since his narration is always in our ear crafting this alternate version of reality, we can easily fall into the trap of taking his narrative as objective truth.
But let’s step back to look at things from the perspectives of some of the women in his life. To Victoria, Ted is the guy who throws away a lifetime with someone he loves, to stay friends with a woman he once cheated on her with. To Royce, he’s the guy who expects his “baggage” to be accepted without reservation, but immediately rejects her when she opens up about her own imperfections.
To Stella, he’s the guy who practically forces her into a relationship, complains that things aren’t moving fast enough, and then breaks up with her when she moves faster. After then proposing to her out of the blue, he invites both of their exes to their wedding without consulting her, essentially pushing her back into the arms of her child’s father, Tony, and later reappears in her life to badmouth her so badly that Tony temporarily breaks up with her, while Ted refuses to help fix the mess he caused. When Tony makes a movie about their love triangle, Ted is outraged to see himself portrayed as the villain and Tony as the hero because for once he’s lost control of the narrative. Ted only feels better after Marshall reassures him of the fundamental belief that holds his universe together:
Marshall Eriksen: “A guy called Ted Mosby. A guy who’s uncynical and sincere. I believe that deep down, you’re still that guy.”
Ted Mosby: “I am still that guy.” – How I Met Your Mother 05x23
Then there’s Robin. From her perspective, she’s a young journalist who moved to New York to follow her professional dreams and happens to meet a cute guy at a bar one night. They have a nice date, but before they can head upstairs she has to run out to cover a story. Surely she can see this guy some other time. Except, in this case, the guy shows back up later that night. But before they can start making out, he drops a bomb on her. This is a major red flag. And after all that, she has to wake up the next morning and find her doormat covered in vomit.
For Robin, this isn’t a huge deal. She went out with a guy, it got a little weird, she can move on. But then she runs into Ted’s friends at the bar and admits to Lily that while she likes Ted, she’s looking for something casual. Next thing she knows Ted is “casually” calling her three days in a row inviting her to his seventy-two-hour party. She’s new in town and wants to meet people so she shows up on the third night, only to find that Ted constructed these parties just for her.
Robin should probably get the hell away from this guy at this point, but, she likes his friends and doesn’t know many folks in the city, so she continues hanging out with the gang, and she and Ted transition into friends.
Eventually, Robin does start having feelings for Ted, so she gives him a chance and agrees to accompany him to a friend’s wedding. But when she shows up late because of a work conflict, she sees that Ted has already re-focused his romantic energy on a woman that he just met. Despite being hurt, Robin tries to be a supportive friend about Ted’s new relationship, waiting until it seems like his long-distance relationship has ended to make a move.
Ted Mosby: “We broke up.” – How I Met Your Mother 01x18
Except this is a lie.
Robin Scherbatsky: “It was your girlfriend.” – How I Met Your Mother 01x18
So from Robin’s perspective, Ted is someone who has emotionally pressured her and tried to trick her into dating him, only to leave her behind at a moment’s notice when she doesn’t fit into his schedule, before proving he’s capable of both lying to and cheating on women he supposedly loves. Soon she’ll learn that he’s also the sort of guy who (not long after the lying-cheating incident) shows up to the dinner where she’s getting an award with a hot date he thinks is a prostitute, just to rub it in her face.
And the first season’s not even over yet! Ted breaks into Robin’s apartment and, in front of a hired string quartet, awkwardly demands an immediate answer about their romantic future:
Ted Mosby: “I need an answer.”
Robin Scherbatsky: “If you want me to say yes right now, I can’t do that.”
Ted Mosby: “Well, if it’s not yes, then it’s a no.” – How I Met Your Mother 01x22
After Robin does start dating Ted, she has to deal with his lying about all the stuff in his apartment that’s from his exes, demanding that she send her beloved dogs up to her aunt’s farm, shaming her for the number of men she’s slept with, and proving that he can’t be trusted to keep her secrets. Most importantly, they break up because Ted isn’t willing to accept Robin for who she is. As much as he loves being with Robin, he loves his vision of a picket-fence, two-kid future more.
And that would be okay if he accepted that trade-off and committed to their resulting friendship. Instead, he periodically seizes on moments when she’s vulnerable to profess his undying love for her and – right to the end of the series – keeps trying to force her into his idea of a happy ending, which all along she’s made clear she doesn’t want. So, a lot of the time, the way Ted acts toward the woman of his dreams…. kind of sucks.
Ted as Barney
The show initially sets up Barney and Ted as the yin and yang of their social circle, with Barney as a reckless misogynist and Ted as a kind-hearted romantic. But in reality, these two are more similar than they are distinct. Throughout the series, Barney serves as Ted’s diabolical sidekick – the friendly demon in his ear, enabling behaviors that should be antithetical for the archetypal nice guy. Ted makes a performance of distancing himself from Barney, but these half-hearted protests never stop him from going along with Barney’s plans.
There are also numerous instances when Ted out-Barney’s Barney. After he decides that his bad behavior is being rewarded at a St. Patrick’s Day party they attend, he quickly ditches their two dates outside because he hears that the girls inside the club are “drunker,” he lies about who he is to put champagne and caviar on someone else’s tab, and he hooks up with a married woman.
As a professor, he pursues a relationship with a student at his college even when he knows it could put her scholarship (as well as his job) at risk – classic Barney behavior. And that’s not even counting all the times that Ted can’t even remember the names of the women he dated. Mounting evidence suggests that deep down Ted is much more like Barney than his other best friend, honest, devoted monogamist Marshall.
Barney himself sees this resemblance between him and Ted. He speaks of the “little Barney” inside Ted controlling his behavior. And we actually see Ted blame Barney for his own misdeeds as if on some level he does think of this friend as an id-like inner presence instigating his worst behaviors.
At points, the show even suggests that Barney is secretly a nicer guy than Ted. Just consider how each of them reacts when Lily leaves Marshall and goes to San Francisco. Ted decides that being a good friend to Marshall means calling Lily, who’s also one of his best friends, a slur that’s most likely the c-word.
Barney, on the other hand, seeing all of the pain that Marshall is in, takes constructive action: he goes on a secret mission to find Lily and beg her to go back to New York. And to top it off, he makes sure that no one knows about his kind act. Ted is the kind of friend who guilts his besties into throwing parties three nights in a row so he can potentially seduce a girl, not caring that Marshall has an important law school paper to write.
But Barney repeatedly takes steps to materially improve his friends’ lives. One year he even uses his massive Christmas bonus, after some initial selfish temptation, to donate ten-thousand-dollars to Sam Gibb’s congregation, along with racks of his suits so that underprivileged people could have clothes for job interviews. So while Barney is often a monster, he’s capable of selfless deeds. Ted, not so much.
Marshall Eriksen: “She’s not getting rid of the dogs!”
Lily Aldrin: “What’s the matter with you?”
Barney Stinson: “Even I wouldn’t do that.” – How I Met Your Mother 02x16
The Dark Side of the Good Guy
Ted’s actively identifying as a good guy is what makes him so dangerous. His delusional belief that he’s the leading man in a romantic comedy written by God, and starring all of humanity as his supporting cast, allows him to let himself off the hook for awful behavior. Because how can anything he does ever be that bad if his intentions are so good?
Ted Mosby: “You put yourself a girl you like in some romantic setting, the stars line up, and shazam.” – How I Met Your Mother 01x13
This mindset is also why Ted is miserable for almost the entire nine-season run of the show: real life will never match the fantasies of romantic grandeur that he has constructed in his head. This is perfectly exemplified by his obsession with winning a second chance with Natalie, the girl he dumped on her birthday. When he’s not with her, he becomes irrationally convinced that life with her would be perfect. But almost as soon as he gets what he asks for, he’s dissatisfied and is so anxious to discard her that he can’t even respect her feelings enough to wait a day and avoid ruining her birthday a second time.
There’s actually a psychological term to describe Ted’s favored seduction technique: Love Bombing, which is a common method used by delusional narcissists to blindside their partners with affection early in relationships. While this might not sound so bad, according to Professor Suzanne Degges-White, “individuals who are especially high in the trait of narcissism [...] may see others simply as objects to satisfy their desire for connection or manipulation.”
When it comes to their cultural impact on viewers, characters like Ted Mosby run the dangerous risk of modeling a self-serving “good guy” persona that’s more likely to encourage narcissistic behavior in men, than show them what truly loving conduct looks like.
Ted Mosby: “I just had decent sex with an awful human being. I am back!” – How I Met Your Mother 04x10
It’s inevitable that viewers will look to popular examples like Ted to see how a “romantic guy” acts, but in reality, they’re learning a troubling set of behaviors. And as the show demonstrates, again and again, this pattern of behavior not only hurts Ted’s partners, it also makes him deeply unhappy and unable to appreciate the many blessings that fill his life.
We don’t actually see what happens after Ted finally gets what he’s wanted for nearly a decade and unites with Robin – but based on what we’ve witnessed, is there really any reason to believe that he’s, at last, going to be happy? How could any reality ever live up to the impossible dream he’s long-nurtured of fairy-tale bliss with this woman?
So should we feel bad about enjoying the various romantic misadventures of Ted in How I Met Your Mother? Absolutely not! But we should be careful to remember that Ted represents a cautionary tale about what happens when delusional fantasies prevent you from being open to connecting with other human beings as they really are.
Lily Aldrin: “Let her go.”
Ted Mosby: “No, this is destiny.”
Marshall Eriksen: “No, Ted, this is forcing it.” – How I Met Your Mother 08x15
Maybe the lesson that Ted should’ve taught his kids in the drawn-out story of how he met their mother is, “look to your Uncle Marshall as a better standard for how a good guy actually behaves.”
“Delusional Disorder.” Harvard Health, Mar. 2019.
L’Amie, Lauren. “Are You Being Love-Bombed?” Cosmopolitan, 29 Mar. 2019.
Degges-White, Suzanne. “Love Bombing: A Narcissist’s Secret Weapon.” Psychology Today, 13 Apr. 2018.