Looking at photos of herself from August, halfheartedly sipping champagne with Jordan Bratman on a yacht along the Italian coast, Christina Aguilera has the same reaction the rest of the world did. “You could definitely tell we were unhappy,” she says. In fact, the pop star’s nearly five-year marriage had been in rough waters for months before then. Problems surfaced when Aguilera-whose own parents divorced when she was 7-returned from filming the musical Burlesque in March. “When I got back into my normal life, it didn’t feel quite right,” she says, adding that the couple, who wed in an estimated $2 million bash in California’s Napa Valley, tried to make it work for their son Max, 2. Now the Grammy winner, who turns 30 Dec. 18, is opening up about the year of heartache that led to her agonizing choice to file for divorce and break up her family. “When you’re unhappy in a marriage, your children are the ones who suffer,” she says. “That’s the last thing I wanted for my son.”
How were you feeling on Oct. 14, the day you filed for divorce?
Things were so unhealthy and unhappy for both Jordan and me, I knew I had to end it. It wasn’t good for us, and it wasn’t good for Max to witness our arguments. Children can feel when things aren’t right in the home. I had bouts of extreme anxiety. I really didn’t want to hurt Jordan, and I felt torn about splitting our family up.
You met Jordan at 21 and married him at 24.
At the time, it felt absolutely right. Jordan and I were best friends first, and then it grew to be more. He represented stability and love and safety-qualities I never got from a male figure growing up. I felt we could share the rest of our lives together. I wanted to marry someone who would be a good father. And he is.
When did things go wrong?
We were great the first year after Max was born. Jordan was amazing. He was the first to change Max’s diaper. Then things turned. I was nurturing Max and felt independent in that relationship. Then I went right into filming Burlesque [in fall 2009]. As a musician, you’re with your posse all the time, and during the movie I removed myself from mine. So I had an independence I’d never felt before. I was growing leaps and bounds daily. I went from being a girl to a woman.
When I finished filming, I didn’t feel right in my own shoes [at home]. I had a lot of things stirring inside of me that I felt were being suppressed. We tried to work on the marriage and figure out a common ground. But the problems were obvious.
There were moments of disconnect. Jordan was always a supportive person, but “supportive” can take on different meanings. He represented safety for me years ago. But our relationship changed. I’ve grown as a woman and he’s grown as a person. We were both looking for different things. We just weren’t right for each other. I couldn’t face living another five years [together] and feeling that I wasted [that time] being unhappy.
Did you try to save your marriage for Max’s sake?
Absolutely. We went through a period of trying to reconnect and spend more family time together. We took that trip to Italy together. But at the same time, I knew Max would benefit from us separating. He’d be happier to see both his parents happy.
Your parents divorced when you were 7. Did that affect your decision?
I come from a home filled with a lot of tension. My parents were not right to stay together [as long as they did]. It’s not good for kids to grow up with [constant] arguments. I knew what I was doing was the right thing for my child because I strongly believe it’s better to have two homes filled with love than one filled with tension. That’s one thing I learned as a child.
What was it like growing up in that environment?
My mom tried for years to stay in a marriage that she was not happy in. I would watch her torture herself emotionally. By staying in a marriage that’s not right, you’re making your children take on such responsibility. There’s guilt. There’s shame. I was happy with my mom’s decision to get divorced. I was an old soul in that way. I felt more loved and secure once they were separated. When things didn’t feel right in my own home and it wasn’t the happiest place for Max to grow up in, it was time to move on.
Have you and Jordan been able to remain friends?
For Max’s sake, we keep in communication and try to be as civil as possible, but there’s some pain. There’s discomfort when we’re together. But I know in my heart we’ll find some sort of ground where we’ll eventually laugh together again and be okay for Max.
How emotional has the split been?
I definitely cry. I’ve mourned. I don’t think I’d be human if I didn’t have moments of sadness about the way things turned out. You look at pictures of happier times and it’s hard. The visions I had of my family life won’t be that way. But I can try to treasure those memories and create other memories and dreams for myself.
I’ve had a strong support system around me. I realized that for a long time during my marriage, I was alienating myself from a lot of my close friends. I rediscovered that during this period in my life.
Has Max seen you cry?
I keep my tears away from my son. I don’t want him to feel anything I’m going through.
What do you do to help him cope?
It’s hard to explain to a 2-year-old what exactly is happening. We didn’t want to make a big issue out of it. It didn’t need to be. We say, “Tomorrow is Daddy’s day,” or “Tomorrow is Mommy’s day.” He’s adapting really well. I try to make him feel as loved and adored as he is. Every chance I get, I squeeze him a little harder, give him more kisses and try to make him feel as special as he really is to me. He’s a happy, happy boy. He’s a really funny guy. I want to be the first person he sees when he wakes up and the last before he goes to sleep. I still have his baby monitor. My heart just melts whenever I watch him sleep.
What do you love to do together?
We go to the zoo. And he loves pretending to make Mommy’s coffee. It’s very cute! So for Christmas I’m getting him this children’s coffeemaker.
You’ve been out in Los Angeles and New York City with a new man, Matthew Rutler, a set assistant on Burlesque. How does it feel to be dating again?
Matthew is a special person. We had a really strong friendship on the movie. He’s the kind of person you could spend hours on the phone talking to and all of a sudden it’s daylight. Once I filed for divorce, we started dating. I’m not trying to jump into anything. I just left a five-year marriage. I’m taking it slow and trying to be happy.
Are you in love?
There’s a love there, yes. I’m having fun, I’m dating and it’s something I haven’t had in a really long time.
Do you still believe in love and marriage?
Wholeheartedly. I know one day I’ll be able to feel that again for someone. That idea will never die.