For three seasons, Christine Cavallari and Jay Cutler were the epitome of #CoupleGoals for fans of their hit show Lots of Cavaliers.
But in April, just weeks after returning from the Bahamas with their children, the seven-year-old couple shared shocking Instagram posts revealing their decision to separate.
Now Cavallari tells PEOPLE exclusively that she and Cutler, 37, have fought alone for years ̵
“I’ve always thought it’s interesting when people call us ‘dual goals,'” said the 33-year-old founder of Uncommon James, who is publishing a new cookbook. Real comfort, on September 29th. “I was like, ‘If you only knew. “
Since their marriage reached a crisis point during the filming last season, “we definitely kept a lot of things private,” she added. “The producers saw things but didn’t put them on the show – which is good because I never want my kids [see that]. “
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While announcing their separation seemed sudden, “it didn’t happen overnight,” Cavalalari said of their separation. “We tried really, really many years and years. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made.”
In the weeks following their divorce, the former engaged in legal and full-fledged legal relationships. But now Cavallari says she and Cutler – who share sons Camden, 8, and Jackson, 6, and daughter Sailor, 4 – have settled into a solid cohabitation routine.
“I still care so much about him and I talk to him almost every day,” she said. “We have three children together. He will stay in my life forever.”
As for what went wrong? “Every relationship has its things. I met Jay when I was 23. I was a baby. Jay and I had so much love for each other, but we grew up,” she said. “When you work in something for so many years and nothing changes, I think you just have to make a decision. We all want to be happy.”
Three years ago, Cavallari signed up to participate Lots of Cavaliers hoping to expand his then-young jewelry company, which has since expanded to home and clothing. After the show premiered, James’ unusual sales exploded, but the spotlight on her personal life also intensified.
After three seasons, the reality show ends and “I’m just relieved,” says Cavallari. “I just knew I would have to talk about everything, and I didn’t want to. The thought of the pictures worried me.
“My children are most important to me. What is best for them?” she continues. “She’s probably not doing a reality show, she needs to talk about her father’s divorce.”
RELATED: Christine Cavallari announces the end of E! Reality show Lots of Cavaliers After 3 seasons
Without the pressure of filming a show and with a new executive team at Uncommon James, Cavallari finally managed to catch his breath.
“A year ago, I felt like I was drowning,” he says Laguna Beach an alumnus who moved to a new home in Nashville in the summer. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have really hard days, but in recent years, for many years, I’ve put everyone else first. I’ll focus on me for a minute, look inside and figure out what I ultimately want from life.”
She also found her rhythm as a single mother of three. “I want to be strong for them and I want to be the best mother I can be for them,” she says of her children. “Of course, three children in themselves are many, I will not lie. But now that our time is divided, I just appreciate it much more. Every moment I have with them, I just want to love them and be with them. “
Her marriage did not turn out as she had imagined, but Cavallari embraced all that lay ahead.
“I’m proud to have made that decision,” she said, taking a step toward a new beginning. “He carried me every day for years. I feel like my whole world is opening up now because of him and I just feel the best I’ve felt in a very long time. I’m really excited about the future around me.”
For all the details on how Christine Cavallari raises three children, makes changes to Uncommon James and finds new joy after parting ways with Jay Cutler, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, at the booths on Friday.