October 17, 2011 12:00 PM

The Jewish New Year-for observers, a time of celebration, renewal and new beginnings-had kicked off the day before, but when Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher visited the Kabbalah Centre in L.A. on Sept. 30, the pair appeared in no mood to celebrate. Arriving in separate cars and both wearing their wedding bands, the pair later drove off in different directions. Says an onlooker: “They both seemed stressed.”

To be certain, it has been a tough few weeks for Moore, 48, and Kutcher, 33, who have been engulfed in a tabloid firestorm amid allegations that the new Two and a Half Men star bedded a college student, 23-year-old Sara Leal, after a night of partying in San Diego in the wee hours of Sept. 24-his sixth wedding anniversary. The report surfaced almost one year after another young woman claimed that she and Kutcher slept together. Back then Kutcher’s lawyer accused the tabloids of “reckless conduct” and the Twitter-addicted couple quickly posted cozy photos together. This time the response was more muted: So far neither Kutcher nor Moore has commented on the latest rumors, though Kutcher tweeted a link to the Public Enemy song “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Moore hit the red carpet on Sept. 26 in New York City to promote the Lifetime short Five, which she directed, then headed back to L.A. But friends say that privately she has little appetite and isn’t sleeping well. Attending a business meeting at L.A.’s Soho House on Sept. 28, “she was very thin,” says an observer. “You couldn’t help but notice it.”

The couple have not officially split, but the much-scrutinized marriage is under strain. Multiple sources say the pair had recently decided to spend time apart. “None of it is black and white,” says an insider. “They aren’t talking about divorce. They’re just trying to see if they can fix their marriage. They both want to make it work.” The separation was Kutcher’s idea, says this source. “Demi is upset. Ashton is too.” Still, any “rumors of an impending split are false,” says a friend.

The always-unconventional couple have spent significant time together as well. At a party thrown by Two and a Half Men producer Chuck Lorre on Sept. 19, Moore “was there to support Ashton,” says a source. “She seemed proud of him.” They stayed together at New York’s 60 Thompson hotel in September and cuddled at L.A.’s Trousdale Lounge on Aug. 5. On the set of Five earlier this year, Moore “jumped into Ashton’s arms” when he visited the set, says actress Aisha Hinds. “They were a loving couple.”

Moore and Kutcher made an instant connection when they met in 2003-“The love he has for me makes me a better person by giving me the courage to take risks,” Moore told W-and Kutcher quickly formed a tight bond with Rumer, 23, Scout, 20, and Tallulah, 17, Moore’s three daughters with ex-husband Bruce Willis. “Ashton has been completely devoted to Demi and the family, always,” says another source. “But things have always been a little off in their relationship, especially given their flexibility with each other toward other relationships. It’s just worked that way for years.” A Kabbalah source says that the mystical form of Judaism teaches that infidelity is something a couple can work through. “If a man strays for a brief fling, it does not mean that he doesn’t love her. He can have an affair yet still love and honor his wife.”

Still, the rumors hurt. “Demi loves Ashton as much as she hates public humiliation,” says a source who knows the couple. A Kutcher family source says Moore’s “insecurity and jealousy” have been a source of tension: “She can get bossy, and he just wants to get away from it. The marriage isn’t good right now.”

But will it continue? Having defied doubters from the start, Kutcher and Moore may continue to do just that. “They have a long and enduring marriage,” says one friend, “and they love each other very much.”

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