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Together again: High school sweethearts break up, reunite years later

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Back in 1986, Sharon Carlsen and Hal Hislop were as in love as any two teenagers could be. They talked about getting married when they were 21 or 22, after Hislop had served an LDS mission.

But then, during their senior year at Logan High, they broke up. He told her he didn't love her any more and she ran off, crying. Watching her go, he knew he'd made a mistake.

He called her home a few times, but she wouldn't come to the phone. "I wanted him to earn me back," she says. But Hal just figured she hated him and he stopped calling.

Fifteen years later, Sharon and Hal showed up together at their high school reunion. Their friends were delighted to see them reunited, she says.

At the time, she was a divorced mother of three. As for him, well, he had never married.

Hal had gotten in touch with Sharon in the first place through e-mail. He was living in Park City and found her e-mail address through a simple Internet search.

He e-mailed her because he wanted to attend the upcoming reunion, he says, and he didn't want to feel awkward when he saw her. He wrote that he knew she was married and had kids but he didn't know how many. She responded in a light and friendly manner, although later she told him she was so happy to hear from him that she could barely concentrate on work for the rest of the day.

They e-mailed each other several times, and Sharon didn't tell him she was in the process of divorce. She did, however, ask him if he would ever marry a woman who already had children. He said no. At this point, as Hal recalls, the e-mails kind of dried up, and he didn't think much about it.

Eventually he got another e-mail. Sharon told him not to be surprised when she came to the reunion without her husband, because, in fact, they were divorcing. Suddenly, Hal felt a crazy surge of hope. As she recalls it, she didn't hear from him again for a while. He was busy getting in touch with friends in Logan to check out her situation.

And then, one evening, he called. When they heard each other's voices, 15 years disappeared, and they felt like teenagers again. They talked for 10 hours. They talked all night until they had to hang up to get ready for work.

Sharon and Hal Hislop will celebrate their second wedding anniversary tomorrow. When they recall the all-night phone conversation, they still sound amazed. They are amazed at the way their love came flooding back.

The Hislops may be surprised by the phenomenon, but the experts are not. There are at least two books and several Web sites devoted to reunited romances.

In fact, Sharon did tell their story on one of the Web sites. Her mother had seen Donna Hanover interviewed on television and told Sharon about the site. So Sharon wrote in. As a result, the Hislops are mentioned in the introduction when the paperback edition of Hanover's book came out.

Hanover decided to do her book after she married Ed Ostler, her own high school sweetheart. She titled her book, "My Boyfriend's Back: 50 True Stories of Reconnecting with a Long-Lost Love." Of course, "My Boyfriend's Back," refers to the 1960s song. Hanover says people sing the "Hey, la! Hey, la!" chorus to her everywhere she goes.

Hanover became single in the most public way possible when her husband, Rudy Giuliani, at the time the mayor of New York City, announced their separation. The media coverage went on and on.

When a reporter asks about the months that preceded Ostler's telephone call, Hanover didn't want to talk about them. She did tell the Deseret Morning News that Ostler called her because he'd read the news stories and knew she was sad.

Hanover and Ostler spent their first date gathering the details of 30 years of each other's lives. He told her about a vacation in Monument Valley with his brothers. She told him about being a reporter and interviewing the Muppets. He told her he read "The Lord of the Rings" to his daughters when they were small.

At one point in the evening, Ostler took Hanover's hand and apologized for hurting her feelings when they were both 17 and he didn't want to go steady any more. She forgave him at once. Hanover has lived long enough to understand how natural it is for a young man to want to be free, as he goes off to college. She can see why they parted, she says, but she also believes she and Ostler had somehow imprinted themselves on each other's lives.

In her book, Hanover quotes Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher. Fisher believes something so thrilling as a first love becomes encoded through networks of neurons into long-term memory.

The eyes. The voice. The gestures. The smell of his aftershave or her perfume. Fisher said, "Why wouldn't the brain be quite impressed by certain things the lover does and then cause you to feel comfort and joy when those things are reproduced?"

In writing "My Boyfriend's Back," Hanover interviewed several celebrities. They are happy to have spouses who remind them of their more humble pasts. Their spouses make them feel grounded.

Scott Clark, the national sportscaster, went to his high school reunion in Lima, Ohio, and ended up marrying the cheerleader he'd had a crush on but never dated. As for Heather, his wife, she loves him for being a small town boy at heart. Together, they avoid the celebrity scene as much as possible.

Actress Carol Channing hadn't seen her old boyfriend, Harry Kullijian, for 70 years when a mutual friend suggested he call her. He was a widower. He'd been happily married, but he said the joy of having shared his youth with Channing had never really left him. She agreed. She said, "We formed each other and our principles — integrity and honesty. And they lasted all my life."

Hanover's book also quotes Nancy Kalish, professor of psychology at California State University in Sacramento. Kalish has studied the reuniting phenomenon for more than a decade. Kalish says that not only are the attractions powerful, the resulting marriages are stable and long-lasting.

In a telephone interview with the Deseret Morning News, Kalish explained how deep-seated needs are met when these sweethearts reunite.

First, she talked about familiarity. Reconnecting with someone from your youth is like finding a long-lost relative. "Only with a sexual charge."

Then too, the way the young relationship ended is important. Kalish believes the vast majority of reunitings come about because the original relationship ended in ambiguity. There was no good reason for the breakup, except age. Maybe the girl's parents (worried about pregnancy) urged her to break it off, Kalish said. Maybe the two teens were headed off for different colleges.

Recently, through Syracuse University, Kalish commissioned a survey of people who were not united with their high school sweetheart. She got more than 1,000 responses.

Fully 70 percent of those questioned were clear about why they broke up, Kalish said. They reported, "He was violent." Or "She used drugs." There was no ambivalence. The majority of those in the Syracuse study have no interest in seeing their old flames again.

As Kalish continues her research, she said, sadly, she is beginning to see the dark side of reuniting. Through her Web site she is beginning to hear from ex-spouses who say their happy marriages were destroyed by the power of the past.

Kalish began her studies in the early 1990s. Back then, she gave questionnaires to more than 1,000 reunited couples. She learned that 30 percent of them had reunited while at least one member of the couple was married to someone else. In 2004 she questioned a new group of more than 1,000 reunited lovers. This time two-thirds of the relationships had begun in adultery.

Of those who were married when they got back together with their high school sweetheart, fully half report having been happily married, Kalish said. They did not set out to cause pain to their spouses or children.

So Kalish has put a warning on her Web site: Married men and women should not contact their lost loves. There's no point, she believes. If you are happy now, you should leave the past alone.

Recently she was invited to speak to a convention of family therapists. Kalish told them that, unlike the majority of people who marry the person they had an affair with, the reunited lovers are not likely to get a divorce. So don't counsel them to go back to their spouses, she said. Because they won't. In fact, Kalish said, they'll be quite happy when they marry their high school love.

All of this has Kalish even more convinced about the strength of the reunited bond. That's why, even as she warns married people not to connect with their high school flames, Kalish adds a caveat. If you are single, divorced or widowed — and if you are looking for a soul mate — she can't think of a better place for you to start your search than in your high school yearbook.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com