By Jennifer Wulff
April 17, 2006 12:00 PM

The year had gotten off to a good start for Matt LeBlanc and his wife, Melissa. Not only had they just bought a new home in Los Angeles, but their 2-year-old daughter Marina, after suffering from seizures, had blossomed into a healthy, giggling toddler. No wonder that, as the couple’s third wedding anniversary approached, Melissa saw even better times ahead. Says Melissa’s longtime friend Kelly Phillips: “She thought they were the golden couple.”

Within weeks, however, that image would be tarnished: On Jan. 18 LeBlanc, 38, announced to Melissa, 41, that he was moving out of their Encino, Calif., home. “It was very sudden,” says Phillips. “She was absolutely blindsided by what transpired.” But the seriousness of the situation soon became apparent when, in March, Melissa accused her husband of being involved with another woman. LeBlanc, who had moved into an L.A. apartment near the studio where he tapes his waning sitcom Joey, admitted he was. Still, friends say, Melissa hoped for a reconciliation—and was stunned when, on March 30, an attorney for her husband called with the news that LeBlanc was about to file for divorce, only hours before headlines like “LeBlanc’s Marriage Cancelled” made it onto the Internet. “She wanted to do counseling or therapy,” says a pal. “But Matt just didn’t want to work it out.”

The actor had apparently already moved on: Since January, he has been seeing actress Andrea Anders, 30, who plays his neighbor on Joey. LeBlanc even brought the Wisconsin-born Anders—who recently shot a pilot for Friends producer David Crane—to the ranch house north of Los Angeles that he and Melissa share after the divorce announcement was made. While LeBlanc’s rep declines to comment on the situation, saying, “We’re not interested in having a public discussion about private family matters,” others say LeBlanc’s involvement with Anders was one of the causes of the divorce filing.

In fact, as early as last summer there were signs that LeBlanc was struggling with his marriage when, in an interview with the National Enquirer, he admitted to “careless and irresponsible” behavior with a stripper during a motorcycle trip to Canada. And after he returned to the set of Joey, LeBlanc “seemed kind of low, like not himself,” according to one insider—and not only because the sophomore show’s ratings were less than stellar (see box). Says an acquaintance: “Matt was finally figuring out that maybe he just wasn’t meant to be married. And that’s a bad thing to realize when you have a family counting on you to be there for them.”

Introduced to Melissa in 1997 by Phillips and her husband, actor Lou Diamond Phillips, LeBlanc quickly fell for the ex-model, as well as her children Tyler, now 14, and Jacquelyn, 11, from Melissa’s first marriage, to rock musician Anthony Esposito. Less than a year later he proposed—but some in their circle wondered why it took until May 2003 for the couple to finally exchange vows on a Hawaiian cliff side. Still, the wedding seemed to seal their commitment. “They’re really sweet together,” a friend who attended told PEOPLE at the time. “He loves her and she loves him. It’s very real.”

For a time, at least, LeBlanc seemed happy to play the role of devoted family man, throwing lavish birthday parties for both kids and taking Tyler dirt-bike riding. “He thought of them as his own,” says a friend. “He was very hands-on.” When Marina arrived in 2004, he was ecstatic. “From the day she was born,” says the pal, “the sun rises and sets on her as far as Matt’s concerned.”

At 8 months old, however, Marina began suffering seizures that affected her motor skills, stripping away her ability to crawl and sit up. Her worried parents “didn’t know what they were up against—for months and months it was just tests, tests and more tests,” said a friend. Believed to have suffered from a form of dysplasia, a neurological disorder, the baby is now much improved, walking and talking like any other 2-year-old. “She’s right on track with all her developmental milestones,” says a family friend. “She hasn’t had any seizures in quite a while and is truly a bundle of joy.”

Although the situation was undoubtedly stressful for the couple, the public face they presented was one of a husband and wife deeply in love. “You could see the affection she felt for him when they were talking,” says Barbara Evans, who was a hostess at the Red Barn Steak House near the couple’s ranch. “For his birthday [in July] she wanted to make sure they got a good table. She cared about him.”

And still does. Melissa remains in contact with her husband, and the couple have agreed to share custody of Marina. “They’ve successfully mediated any questions and are still friendly,” says a source close to LeBlanc. Which may not be the future Melissa had been looking forward to—but she is looking forward, nonetheless. “She has her good days and bad days, but she’s incredibly strong,” Phillips says. “She will heal with time.”