Michelle Tauber
October 07, 2013 12:00 PM

Plenty of stars would balk at facing a red carpet press gauntlet in the midst of painful personal problems. Michael Douglas is not that kind of star. Looking healthy, dapper and upbeat, the consummate Hollywood pro showed up for the Emmy Awards on Sept. 22 ready for the spotlight. With his wife of nearly 13 years, Catherine Zeta-Jones, more than 6,000 miles away at a film industry event in China, Douglas didn’t shy away from questions about the “break” the couple recently decided to take from their marriage. “We’re working things out, talking,” the star, who took home a trophy for his performance as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, told PEOPLE, “and we’ll see how she goes.”

For Douglas, 69, and Zeta-Jones, 44, the decision to separate this past June was wrenching. Four months later they’re still trying to decide whether their marriage can – and should – be saved. “They’re not giving up,” says a source close to Zeta-Jones. Although they have traditionally celebrated their shared Sept. 25 birthday together, they were expected to be apart this year as they continue to lead separate lives. With the school year in full swing, Zeta-Jones has stayed in their Bedford, N.Y., home with their kids Dylan, 13, and Carys, 10, while Douglas has been shooting his thriller The Reach in New Mexico and occasionally crashing with wealthy friends. Still, they talk a couple of times each day, says a source close to Zeta-Jones, adding, “It’s not contentious between them.”

But the union was pushed to the breaking point by their recent health crises (he survived throat cancer, she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder) and hurt feelings that “snowballed,” as the source puts it, adding, “Any other couple would have split by now. It’s a testament to them that they hung on.” Several industry friends who spent time with Douglas in Europe in early September echo that view. “My sense is that he wants the marriage to work,” says one longtime friend who spoke to him at the Deauville American Film Festival. Among friends there, “he was quiet – much more so than before,” says the friend. “It’s as though cancer and marriage problems knocked him around and made him a different man.” A second industry source says the actor insisted, “This is a separation, not a split. Not a divorce.”

As yet, neither star has moved toward a legal separation. While they’re in daily contact, they haven’t spent time together. “Catherine is focusing on the kids,” says a source close to her. “She’s horseback riding with them, hanging out with them, helping with homework.” Despite tabloid speculation that she has lost weight in recent weeks, “she is not wasting away,” says the source, noting that she has several projects in the works. “She is not sitting around crying. She takes very good care of herself.” A surprisingly low-key presence in the suburbs – where she often stops in for a nonfat latté at the Starbucks inside a Target store – “she has said many times that she loves being a Bedford housewife and focusing on her kids and her family,” says a local. As Zeta-Jones told PEOPLE in January, “To me my kids are still my babies. When they grow up and leave the house for good, I’m going to be a complete mess.”

In happier times, the couple were living a “fairy tale,” the Zeta-Jones source says, but Douglas’s stage 4 throat cancer diagnosis in 2010 kicked off “a hell of a couple of years,” says the source, including Zeta-Jones’s two rounds of inpatient treatment for bipolar II disorder and a nine-year federal prison sentence for Douglas’s son Cameron, 34, following a 2009 drug bust. Additionally Zeta-Jones was upset by what she thought were “embarrassing” comments Douglas made at the Cannes Film Festival in May in which he said the HPV virus, transmitted through oral sex, was a potential cause of his cancer – without clarifying that he was exposed to the virus before he met her. The conflict exacerbated the couple’s tensions. Douglas also had issues with the marriage at that point, and they separated soon after. “He just couldn’t take the stress anymore. He wasn’t happy,” says a Bedford resident who knows the couple. Zeta-Jones had been struggling at times, this source adds. “When she’s working, she has structure. When she’s not working, then that’s when things seem to get tough.”

For both of them, the pull of family is a key reason to salvage their marriage. Douglas has spoken about his regrets as a distant father to Cameron, as well as the emotional toll exacted by his divorce from Cameron’s mother, Diandra Luker, which reportedly cost the actor $45 million. “Instead of running around the world like a madman, I should have been there for my son,” he told Paris Match in August. Cameron was in solitary confinement for nearly two years and is not permitted visitors, a source of heartache for Michael. Throughout the ordeal of his incarceration, Zeta-Jones “has been very supportive of Cameron,” says the source close to her.

Those close to them have long marveled at how strongly the two Oscar winners stood behind each other. “They are a lovely couple,” says Julianne Osherow, their former assistant. Adds a friend who has known them since their 1999 engagement: “I hope they realize that they had a love and an understanding for each other that most people never find, and that they won’t want to let that go.”

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