Updated May 30, 2011 12:00 PM
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The recently estranged husband and wife sat beside one another on Sunday for the confirmation of their two sons. Despite having announced their separation days earlier, the couple, surrounded by friends and relatives in two pews near the front of St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, had “a real sense of togetherness” observed one witness. After the service they lined up with their four children-Katherine, 21, Christina, 19, Patrick, 17, and Christopher, 13-for photos, and Maria Shriver could be seen standing near her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, beaming at the camera, no doubt proud of their boys. If she was hurting, her broad smile-the image of her grandmother Rose Kennedy’s-hid it well.

In this long union of the Political Scion and the Hollywood Star, perhaps it was always she who was the better actor. Because as the world (and even the couple’s close friends) heard on the morning of May 17, Shriver, 55, had learned soon after Schwarzenegger, 63, finished his second term as California governor in January that he had fathered a child over a decade ago, whose mother is a former member of their household staff.

“This is a painful and heartbreaking time,” Shriver told PEOPLE in a statement that day. “As a mother, my concern is for the children. I ask for compassion, respect and privacy as my children and I try to rebuild our lives and heal.”

Friends of the former TV journalist marvel at her composure. “The magnitude of this betrayal and selfishness knows no bounds,” says a pal of Shriver, who has been living in a Beverly Hills hotel in recent weeks. “I imagine her profound sadness that she was lied to for so long right under her nose, in her own house.” Adds another friend of the couple’s: “I think [Maria] chose to live in that gray area. Unfortunately, this is so black and white.”

Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, was publicly contrite. “I understand and deserve the feelings of anger and disappointment among my friends and family,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a statement. “There are no excuses, and I take full responsibility for the hurt I have caused. I have apologized to Maria, my children and my family. I am truly sorry.”

The mother of the child, whom the Times did not name, is said to be a member of the family’s staff who retired with severance in January after 20 years of service. Schwarzenegger has taken financial responsibility for the child and, says a source close to him, an affair is not ongoing. “It was well over a decade ago.”

Even so, it is a betrayal that is now reverberating from the family, to friends, to those who worked alongside the couple. “They always seemed devoted to and in love with each other regardless of whatever external noise there was,” says Jill Eisenstadt, who was Schwarzenegger’s L.A.-based publicity rep from ’00 to ’06. “[Maria] was a high consideration in everything he did. He leaned on her, she leaned on him, and they laughed a lot. That was the Arnold I know.”

Up in Sacramento, similar reactions: “I have never met the child-only his kids with Maria,” says former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado. “He has a private life, and I didn’t know about this.”

Most surprising is that the actor turned politician didn’t pull out of the two-month-long 2003 special election when the Los Angeles Times published a report about his groping women who had worked for him on film sets; further scrutiny might have turned up this woman and child. Instead he apologized and let his wife defend him, which Shriver did. “All these [infidelity] rumors came up, and he denied them, and he used Maria to vouch for his character,” notes a friend of hers. “To find out that he had been lying about all of it is so upsetting. Things would have been different if the truth had come out earlier and voters had known at the time about his true character.”

At the time Shriver bristled at the idea that she was just another Kennedy wife raised to ignore philandering. “That ticks me off,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “I am my own woman. I have not been quote ‘bred’ to look the other way. I look at that man … eyes wide open, and I look at him with an open heart, and I accept him with all his strengths and weaknesses as he does me.”

But this new development was evidently too much. “It’s a bond that is gone,” says a Shriver source. “She did such a major job defending him from any rumor about him.”

Adds a source close to the Republican former governor: “He recognized this day would come and was trying to emotionally prepare for it. But you can’t prepare for something like this. He’s talking to his family. He apologized to each and every one of them. He’s being very forthcoming and hoping to earn their trust back. He understands this is entirely his responsibility. The rest of it is up to his friends and family as to how they want to respond.” Son Patrick, a junior in high school, responded to the breaking news, online with a tweet: “Some days you feel like sh–, some days you want to quit and just be normal for a bit, yet i love my family till death do us [part].”

How Shriver will respond remains to be fully seen, and the couple have yet to file for divorce. “She is a very religious person,” says a friend. “She will spend a lot of time on prayer and recovery.”

This new crisis comes at a time of huge upheaval for Shriver. “Everything she knows is moving out from under her,” says a friend. In the past two years, she lost both her parents, Sargent and Eunice Shriver, which, some say, unmoored her. “Her mother called her many times a day,” says another friend. “This was the link that kept everything going.”

Professionally too, Shriver appears to some to be cast adrift, though close friends say she is merely strategizing about her next step. Born to a political family, she had campaigned with her father, brother, her uncle Ted Kennedy and later her husband. But she knew since her teen years that she wanted to be a journalist. Having given up her job as a contributing anchor for Dateline NBC when she became California’s first lady, she now has neither.

Political wife was a role this Kennedy Democrat went into “kicking and screaming,” says a friend. In a 2008 TIME interview, she recalled the day she laid eyes on the first lady’s office, with its sign reading “Very Special Projects of the Governor,” and being told, “You can pick out the Christmas ornament,” to which she replied, “You gotta be kidding!”

But she remade the role as a platform to promote women’s issues and gather support for people who have loved ones with Alzheimer’s, which her father had. She organized the Women’s Conference seven times, making it a power event that drew speakers from Michelle Obama to the Dalai Lama.

Meanwhile Arnold “is doing the best he can,” says a source close to the actor. Future political offices or appointments appear out of the question now, so he is focusing on rebuilding his brand in Hollywood, which includes playing a horse trainer in the drama Cry Macho, and is developing a “Governator” comic book and TV series and may reprise his Terminator role. Despite the admitted infidelity, the couple will continue to support each other, and there will be no fighting over custody. “This is a sad time for her, but Maria will come out okay,” says a longtime pal. “She is a strong, resilient person.”