Full disclosure: I’ve seen all seasons of How I Met Your Mother available on Netflix, although I haven’t kept up with current episodes. It’s entertaining, it has it’s funny moments, and it’s a way to pass the time. But as I moved through the seasons, I began to get more and more uncomfortable with the show’s portrayal of relationships and less and less sympathetic toward Ted Mosby as a protagonist.
Ted’s character is, on the surface, presented to us as a hopeless romantic: an idealist with a lot of love to give, longing for the day he meets “the one” with whom he’ll spend the rest of his life. We already know that he gets his happy ending, since the premise of the show is that Ted from the year 2030 is recounting his misadventures to his future children, i.e, the offspring Ted will share with “the one.”
But when I think about Ted Mosby, I see, perhaps hidden a little deeper beneath the laugh track, perhaps within the subconscious of the show itself (since I doubt that the show’s writers intend for Ted to come across this way), a man whose selfish actions are supposed to be somehow justified by the fact that he hopes to one day settle down, get married, have some kids, and for goodness’ sake stop sleeping around. I see a man who is just as selfish and casually promiscuous (or at least, just as nonchalant about being casually promiscuous) as Barney—the womanizer of whose lifestyle we’re supposed to kind of not approve (even the other characters on the show look down on his shallow behavior). And I’m supposed to root for this guy?
I’m bothered by the dichotomy of Ted the Romantic, whom we’re supposed to cheer for, and Barney the Womanizer, whom we’re supposed to find shallow and inappropriate (although I think even then in just a friendly, Barney-will-be-Barney sort of way). I think it’s dangerous to root for a protagonist like Ted Mosby, because Ted shows us that it’s perfectly fine to casually sleep around in your twenties-to-mid-thirties as long as you someday get responsible and have a family with “the one;” best of all, this lifestyle is virtually consequence free! And don’t worry, you’ll find “the one.” Everyone does!
This is, I believe, a reflection of contemporary norms regarding sexuality and relationships. And I think it’s dangerous that so many people are buying into Ted Mosby and what popular shows like How I Met Your Mother are telling us about what we should expect out of romantic relationships.
For instance: this concept of “the one.” Ted’s immoral means are supposedly justified by his “virtuous” end: finding his “one,” his soul mate, his future wife. This notion that there is a single person out there in the world who we are destined to be with encourages, I think, the same kind of unrealistic expectations as a Disney princess movie. Searching for “the one” is like waiting for Prince (or Princess) Charming: the only person in the world who can rescue us (from our insecurities, weaknesses, loneliness) and make us complete and truly happy. “The one” is the only person with whom we are meant to spend our lives, and once we find that person it’s time to cue the music, ride off into the sunset, and roll credits. If I put these kinds of expectations, and this kind of pressure, on my husband, I can only imagine how detrimental it would be to our relationship if and when he fails to meet them. After all, while my husband is absolutely an extraordinary man and my favorite person to be with, he is only human. And he is certainly not my savior.
This kind of thinking ignores the less-than-idealistic aspects of real-life relationships that take commitment, sacrifice, and work. Real relationships are not always easy or exactly what we want or expect them to be. This kind of thinking is both selfish and idolatrous: if we subscribe to the concept of “the one” we in turn must believe that the person we end up with will provide us with comfort, ease, and happiness. Further, believing someone to be “the one” sets them up on a pedestal of perfection akin to idol worship, because we are asking of them lowlier versions of things that we should be seeking from God: salvation (instead of comfort), sanctification (instead of ease), and eternal joy (instead of immediate happiness). (I feel I should clarify that marriage can be a vehicle through which God sanctifies people, but that’s different than another person being the sanctifier.)
In the end, I think Ted’s journey is misdirected, and that in turn those who perhaps identify with Ted’s journey are misdirected. Part of the human experience is to search for meaning: what will make us content? What will give our lives purpose? How do I find my own happy ending? The answer lies not with another person—a spouse, a soul mate, “the one”—but with Christ.
You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You. – St. Augustine, Confessions