The couple, who have been married since May 2014 and dated for two years prior, have certainly had their share of tough times on the hit Bravo show — mainly surrounding running of their restaurant, Oz. One explosive fight caught on camera during the show’s second season even had Ashley threatening divorce.
Though they’ve yet to decide whether or not they’ll dissolve the marriage, Ashley tells PEOPLE she still loves Michael and hopes they’ll find a way back to one another.
“He’s my person,” she says. “We’re taking the time to evaluate exactly what we expect from our relationship and if both of us can give each other what we need. We still really care about each other, so the foundation is there. It’s just a matter of repairing some of the faults in the foundation.”
The two have been living apart since February — with Ashley, 29, moving out of their place and into her own apartment in Arlington, Virginia. And though they’re not spending time romantically, they’re still working together closely on their restaurant.
“We are 50-50 partners,” she explains, adding that the business is a dream (and a big financial investment) she wouldn’t just walk away from. “We both share in everything that goes on there and that’s not going away, like a child. You can’t just get rid of your child. We’re co-parenting!”
They also still spend time together socially, which is one of the reasons her RHOP cast mates were so surprised to hear they had split on Sunday’s reunion. “It is a very small town, so we have common friends and we go to the same events. The only difference now is we just retreat back to our separate quarters,” she says. “It took me this long to talk about it because I wanted to deal with it in private, since it was something that I wasn’t really comfortable with or sure how to explain at first.”
So what pulled her and Michael apart? The couple’s age gap played a factor. “She’s in her 20s,” Michael, 57, said on the reunion. “She’s feeling out who she is going into her evolving life and future. And I’m at my age, coming through the end of my career, looking to all kinds of things that are very different from some of the things I am looking for.”
But the restaurant has been the main issue, even halting their plans to have kids. “It was definitely an emotional roller coaster,” she tells PEOPLE. “All the trials and tribulations one goes through with opening a new business? It was challenging. It took a toll on me personally and on our marriage. Being in business with your spouse is certainly not for the faint of heart.”
While its been a catalyst, Ashley was nervous about making impulsive and drastic decisions based solely on the conflict they’ve had around the restaurant. “Businesses, they come and go,” she says. “They’re not permanent. So, like, maybe in five years if it’s doing better or we decide to not have it anymore, then we’d be sitting back thinking like, “Oh my gosh, we let something so temporary affect the connection that we have with each other.’ That’s the reason that I didn’t put the gas pedal on getting the divorce immediately.”
She still thought it was important to put the breaks on, though. “It’s really not good to keep it a trend just going downward. You have to stop at some point and think, ‘Can we go upward?’ And that’s when we decided to separate,” she says. “We just had to stop being in each other’s faces and constantly talk about the restaurant and get back to being our fun-loving selves individually.”
“Relationships take a lot of work, especially when you have tribulation. And if you feel there’s an inkling of possibility, it’s worth investing your time to see if you can make it work,” she continues. “I would much rather take the time to see if its possible for us both to be happy. I can’t just throw it away because I’m connected to [Michael] in a way I can’t explain or put into words or even fully understand myself.”
Time apart has taught Ashley a lot. She’s says she’s on a “spiritual journey,” pursuing yoga and guided meditation to focus on finding enlightenment. “I feel like I have almost grown up, in a sense,” she says.
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It’s still a challenge to be apart from Michael though — even five months in. “It’s very hard for me,” she admits. “I’m not used to this. I’m not used to not being with him and waking up and making him coffee in the morning. It’s been an adjustment. There’s a little bit of a void because this is the person that I thought I was going to share the rest of my life with. For that to be unraveled feels very foreign.”
“I do love him and I care about him so much,” she adds. “But having love and admiration for someone — you realize that that’s really not all it takes in a relationship.”
Up next, the couple plan on going to couple’s counseling — something they tabled at a first in order to re-establish themselves as individuals before coming back together as a couple. And Ashley seems ready to do that. “In my mind, I want to get back together,” she said on the reunion. “But I’m only 50 percent.”