Five months after announcing the end of her marriage to Jay Cutler after 10 years together, the Uncommon James founder opens up about finding happiness again
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For three seasons, Kristin Cavallari and Jay Cutler were the epitome of #CoupleGoals for fans of their hit show Very Cavallari.

But in April, just weeks after they returned from the Bahamas with their children, the spouses of seven years shared shocking Instagram posts revealing their decision to separate.

Now, Cavallari tells PEOPLE exclusively that she and Cutler, 37, had been struggling privately for years — and they made a conscious effort to keep their marriage woes hidden.

"I always thought it was interesting when people would refer to us as 'couple goals,'" says the Uncommon James founder, 33, who is releasing a new cookbook, True Comfort, on Sept. 29. "I was like, 'If you guys only knew.'"

kristin cavallari
Kristin Cavallari
| Credit: Theo Wang/Getty

As their marriage hit a crisis point during filming last season, "we definitely kept a lot of stuff private," she adds. "Producers saw stuff, but they didn't put it in the show — which is good, because I don't want my kids to ever [see that]."

While their split announcement seemingly came out of the blue, "it didn't happen overnight," Cavallari says of their breakup. "We tried really, really hard for years and years. It was the hardest decision I've ever made."

In the weeks following their divorce announcement, the exes engaged in a fraught few weeks of legal back-and-forth. But now Cavallari says she and Cutler — who share sons Camden, 8, and Jaxon, 6, and daughter Saylor, 4 — have settled into a solid co-parenting routine.

"I still care so much about him and talk to him almost every day," she says. "We have three kids together. He's going to be in my life forever."

Kristin Cavallari and Jay Cutler
Kristin Cavallari and Jay Cutler
| Credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty

As for what went wrong? "Every relationship has their stuff. I met Jay when I was 23. I was a baby. Jay and I had so much love for each other, but we grew up," she says. "When you work at something for so many years and nothing's changing, I think you have to just make a decision. We all want to be happy."

Three years ago, Cavallari signed up to star in Very Cavallari in the hopes of expanding her then-fledgling jewelry company, which has since expanded into home and apparel. After the show's premiere, Uncommon James sales exploded — but the spotlight on her personal life also intensified.

After three seasons, the reality show is ending, and "I'm just relieved," Cavallari says. "I just knew I was going to have to talk about everything, and I didn't want to. Thinking about filming was giving me anxiety.

"My kids are the most important thing to me. What's best for them?" she continues. "Probably not doing a reality show, having to talk about divorcing their dad."

Without the pressures of filming a show, and with a new executive team in place at Uncommon James, Cavallari is finally able to take a breath.

"A year ago I felt like I was drowning," says the Laguna Beach alumna, who moved into a new Nashville home over the summer. "That's not to say I don't have really hard days, but for the past however many years, I've been putting everybody else first. I'm going to focus on me for a minute, look inward and figure out what I ultimately want out of life."

She's also found her rhythm as a single mom of three. "I want to be strong for them, and I want to be the best mom that I can be for them," she says of her kids. "Of course three kids by yourself is a lot, I'm not going to lie. But now that our time is split, I just appreciate it so much more. Every moment that I have with them I just want to love on them and be with them."

Her marriage didn't turn out the way she envisioned, but Cavallari is embracing everything that's still to come.

"I'm proud for making this decision," she says of taking the step toward a fresh start. "It wore at me every single day for years. I feel like my whole world is opening up now because of it, and I'm just feeling the best I've felt in a really long time. I'm really excited about the future all around."

For all the details on how Kristin Cavallari is raising three kids, making changes at Uncommon James and finding new joy after her split from Jay Cutler, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.