December 12, 2011 12:00 PM

After she got engaged to Roberto Martinez while filming The Bachelorette last May, a giddy Ali Fedotowsky couldn’t stop talking about wedding plans. “Now that I’ve found the one for me, I can’t wait!” Ali told PEOPLE three months later. “I feel like, ‘I gotta lock that down.'” But as time went on, the path to the altar stretched longer and longer. First the couple slowed down plans for a spring 2011 wedding. Then this past July, Ali needed knee surgery, forcing them to postpone their nuptials yet again. Finally plans for a holiday 2011 wedding, which would have been filmed for ABC, fell through over concerns about timing and the logistics of flying her Massachusetts-based clan and his relatives in Puerto Rico abroad for a destination affair. “It’s just so frustrating,” Ali confessed to PEOPLE in September. “I’m not a planner. I just [want] to be there and marry the man of my dreams.”

Now the dream is done. On Nov. 21, after being engaged for 18 months, Ali and Roberto announced they were breaking up. “I wouldn’t be being truthful if I said this came out of nowhere,” Ali told PEOPLE through (many) tears in her first interview since the split, just days after moving out of their San Diego apartment. “We definitely had been having problems. But I had always believed that we could work it out.” For his part, Roberto, 28, “kept believing and hoping that they’d find a way,” says a source. “He’s still in shock that it’s really over.”

To fans of the show, the bubbly, athletic blonde and her tall, dark and handsome beau seemed poised to beat the odds that stand in the way of reality-TV romance. (For the record: Two of seven Bachelorette couples are still together, and exactly zero of 15 original Bachelor pairs.) Ali and Roberto thought they would prevail too-until reality sank in. Off-camera the duo got off to a rocky start, with Ali admitting she wasn’t thrilled with their tight quarters in an “industrial” area of San Diego, their chosen new hometown. Roberto, who had relocated from Charleston, S.C., worked to set up a new State Farm insurance office, while Ali, 27, who left her job at Facebook to take part in The Bachelorette, struggled to define her career path, working as a local news correspondent and signing a deal for a Style Network hosting gig that eventually fell through. “We were trying to establish ourselves individually,” Ali concedes, “but a relationship should be solid regardless of circumstances.”

When it came to day-to-day issues, their different interests started driving them apart. “A lot of times what I wanted to do and what he wanted to do didn’t match up,” she says plainly. “One of us was always compromising with the other, or we both ended up not doing what we wanted and staying home.” When she injured her femur kickboxing and had to undergo surgery in July, “it really affected us,” she says. “I couldn’t really be active like I wanted to be. I hit a low.” Before long, minor differences gave way to more challenging personality clashes. When it came to their free time, “he would rather be alone on weekends,” says Ali. “He’s more introverted. I love being around people and sharing stories and going out to dinner.”

But a source close to Ali says one of their biggest issues was Roberto’s temper-which was often triggered by arguments over his traditional, conservative values. “Roberto seemed bothered that Ali was career-minded and had a social life. He is very old-fashioned when it comes to a woman’s place,” says the source. Ali concedes that she often tried to play the part of dutiful helper: “I helped him build his business, and I’d bring him lunch all the time,” she says. “I was so supportive of him.” Even so, their fights had intensified lately. “In the past six months he kind of lost it,” says the source. “He’d be really good and sweet in public, but their fights could be explosive.”

As their relationship began to disintegrate, the pair still held out hope of pulling together a TV wedding “to share with our fans,” Ali told PEOPLE in September. But when the plans began to unravel yet again, the once gleeful bride-to-be, who had already picked out shoes (sparkly Converses!) and a dress (Monique Lhuillier), instead declared the wedding was indefinitely on hold. “Something inside both of us said we still had more figuring out to do,” Ali says. “We take marriage very seriously. It’s not something we were going to do and just hope it works out.”

All the while, Ali defended their relationship as rumors of strife hit the Internet. “It doesn’t matter if you are the Bachelorette or a normal girl,” she says. “When people criticize your relationship, even if it isn’t in the best place, you want to believe that it is.” She moved in with friends for a weeklong trial separation in November-then gave her relationship one more shot. “I went back to our apartment, and I cooked this Spanish dish that his mom makes to do something special for him, so we could have a dinner and talk,” she recalls, breaking down in sobs. Instead the tension-filled meal only served as confirmation that they were over. “At the end of the day we both realized we were unhappy more than we were happy,” Ali says. “And we both deserved more. I just knew that we needed to go separate ways.” When she was moving out her belongings a few days later, Roberto stopped by. “We hugged each other. And he broke down, and I broke down. It was a very emotional experience.” (Ali, for now at least, is hanging on to her $50,000 Neil Lane engagement ring and what it once represented: “It’s a symbol of our love, and that’s something that I still have.”)

Now Ali, who is staying with friends in San Jose, Calif., will have many more decisions to make. “All of my things are going to be in storage until I figure out what to do,” she says. “I literally don’t even know where I want to live, never mind what I want to do.” The first step, though, is healing. Ali and Roberto “still talk every day. I found real, true love, and I’m grateful that I had that experience,” she says, adding emphatically, “There’s no hate. I still love him, and I always will. But what matters is how we feel, and we both knew it wasn’t right.”

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