Black Lotus.  Icy Manipulator.  Iridescent Angel.  When I hear these words, my palms sweat, my breath shortens and my heart starts to race.

If you recognize these names, then you know why I feel a surge of excitement.  If, instead, these words conjure up images of a Goth prom corsage, a divorce lawyer and a Christmas tree ornament, let me explain: these are the names of three cards in a fantasy game called “Magic: The Gathering.”  You could buy and sell these cards to build your collection, or you could simply add an additional fifty-seven well chosen cards, find an opponent with a deck of his own, and engage in virtual combat for hours.

It’s a guy thing. Oh, don’t misunderstand me; lots of women play Magic. But mostly, it’s men who partake.  From paintball tournaments to fantasy baseball conventions, men of all ages and nationalities get absorbed in these kinds of flights of fancy. I can’t explain the link between testosterone and pleasure in these games any more than I can explain why my wife loves to go through catalogues when they arrive in the mail.  Like I said, it’s a guy thing.

But is it a husband thing?

Take Jason, the son of a co-worker, whom I met on the joint occasion of his twenty-fifth birthday and the birth of his first child.  He stood before the small mountain of gifts, first opening the presents for his new daughter.  He examined the onesies and mobiles with an air of curiosity and confusion.  He politely thanked the donors and cautiously pushed the items aside, to share later with his recovering wife.

Then came his birthday presents.  He beamed as he tore through the gift-wrap, pulling out knights and swords, and examined each one with wonder and appreciation.  Jason, I soon discovered, was a great fan of “Dungeons and Dragons.”  As a teen and young adult, he spent many nights choosing identities for himself and his friends, sometimes playing roles until daybreak.  Those were the days!  And these wonderful birthday presents stirred his great passion.

I admire Jason.  I think it’s great that he loved, and still loves, to escape in role-playing games.  But I also see trouble ahead.  (I’m pausing now, in front of my keyboard, trying to figure out how to say this delicately.  Here we go?) At some point — soon, I predict — Jason will have to choose between “Dungeons and Dragons” and his wife.

I’m not saying every young man who chooses to marry must give up all his fun.  But one thing I’ve noticed about fantasy games is that, now let’s be honest, we men tend to get obsessed with them.   In an essay entitled “Fourteen Things That It Took Over Fifty Years To Learn,” humorist Dave Barry points out: “There is a very fine line betwee ‘hobby’ and ‘mental illness.'”  He’s not making that up.  It’s not just that getting to the next level on “Grand Theft Auto — Vice City” consumes our mental energies; it consumes our time, too.   Fun is OK.  Obsession is not.  You might have the kind of fiance who is happy to have you disappear for hours on end at the close of the workday.  And once you marry, that might stay the same.  But I doubt it.  Most wives want you around.

Here’s why.  Our wives interpret our ardor for fantasy games as a lack of passion for them.  They see the hours we spend in the basement with our homeys as time we should spend with our honeys.  Personally, I don’t think they’re right; passion isn’t a limited commodity; I can have plenty for my woman and my Magic cards.  But my wife doesn’t see it that way.  And when it comes to marriage, it’s her perception that counts.  Let me repeat: When it comes to marriage, it’s her perception that counts.  My wife wants my time and attention, even if it means I have to cut back on some of the things I love to do.  And if I want to keep her, I’d better give her what she wants.

In my practice of psychiatry, I’ve counseled hundreds of married individuals.  Most tell me that during their starry-eyed days of the honeymoon marital conflict isn’t on their radar screen — and that’s the way it should be.  But when wives who have been married a few years tell me about problems in their marriage, their most common complaint is that they don’t feel emotionally connected to their companion.  They feel lonely in their own homes.

The guys I’m treating, on the other hand, aren’t complaining of lack of emotional attachment.  In fact, they don’t tend to grouse about their wives at all, except for one small thing: that their wives complain about them.  A few years after stepping off the altar, many men get the message that they can’t get things right.  Check out almost any sit-com (or the commercials peppered throughout) and you’ll see what I mean.   It becomes pretty disheartening for guys.

Your wife’s grievances shouldn’t turn you off, and you shouldn’t tune them out.  Rather, you should hear them as a wake up call.  As a husband, you play a very active role in securing your wife’s happiness.  If you make a conscious decision to meet your wife’s need for attention and attachment, she will not feel lonely; she will feel loved and attended to.  But fostering her peace of mind requires you to make sacrifices.  It means that you can’t get together for nightly poker games with your cronies, that you can’t withdraw in front of your computer when you get home from work, and that, alas, you can’t stay up all night Saturday playing Dungeons and Dragons with your high school buddies.   Your wife wants to know that she is the only thing that matters, that she is the one and only obsession you have.  Once she knows this, her trust grows stronger, and her sense of security deepens.  That ought to be your goal.

Am I suggesting you sell your Playstation on e-bay or change your phone number to prevent your friends from inviting you over? No.  You can still partake in guy stuff, but you cannot lose yourself in these activities as when you were single.  Enjoy them in moderation.  If you’re not sure whether you are keeping things in balance, I have one suggestion:  Ask your wife.

Now, anyone have a Black Lotus they want to sell?

Copyright © 2006 Scott Haltzman,  used with permission.