Gina Kirschenheiter opened the chapter of reality TV stardom this year just as she was shutting the chapter on another season: her marriage.
The 34-year-old Long Island native made her debut on The Real Housewives of Orange County earlier this summer, joining the cast for its thirteenth season. But as exciting as the opportunity was, it came as Gina and her husband, Matt Kirschenheiter, were making the decision to go their separate ways.
“It wasn’t easy,” Gina tells PEOPLE. “Matt and I were just coming out of the baby, baby, baby-phase and were recognizing that our relationship had run its course. At the same time, he had taken a new job in Los Angeles and was living there during the week. And I had made this commitment to come on this show.”
“All of a sudden, it all collided,” she says.
As tough as their split has been, Gina and Matt have kept their divorce civil so far.
The couple met before they graduated college; they have been together for 11 years and married for eight. They share three kids — sons Nicholas, 6, and Luca, 3, as well as daughter Sienna, 4 — and plan on continuing to co-parent them.
“We’re always going to be family. We are a family,” Gina says. “Matt, I would never throw under the bus. He’s my best friend. I can never imagine him not in my life. He’s the father of my children. He’s the most important person to me.”
Though their divorce is far from finalized (“there’s so much paperwork, it’s a huge pain in the ass,” she says), the two have been transparent with one another in negotiations and plan to sit down with their respective councils and a private judge.
They were going to sell their house in Orange County, but have decided to wait until the market is stronger. Instead, they’re essentially “bird nesting” — keeping the kids in one family residence and rotating their time there separately.
Matt, whose employer forbid him from appearing on RHOC, is also still financially supporting Gina and the kids. “He’s always going to take care of us,” Gina insists. “We don’t come from money, so it’s not about money. I’m not going to fight over money, it’s not worth it.”
This begs the question: What is it about? If Gina still has so much affection for Matt, why didn’t they work out?
The way Gina describes it, the two had simply grown apart. She looks back at their decision to get hitched and realizes she was planning more for the wedding than she was for the marriage.
“It’s a huge, huge decision — one of the biggest ever — and I was 23 years old?” Gina says. “I wasn’t ready to make a decision about who I was going to spend the rest of my life with at 23. No wonder! We made it work because we made it work. But I’m a completely different person than I was then.”
Isolating themselves from their inner circles and moving to California a few years back didn’t help, either.
“On Long Island, marriage is a community thing,” she explains. “Your parents, your in-laws, your siblings, your friends, your family — they’re all a part of your relationship. You don’t think about breaking that up. So when we moved to California, it was like, now you only have each other. And you really have to validate that relationship and say, ‘Are we really functioning and working well? Are you really my soulmate who I want to spend the rest of my life with in that way?’ “
“When we asked ourselves those questions, we discovered that we really didn’t,” Gina adds.
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Gina’s ready to ask herself those questions in her next relationship. And while she’s not ready to date just yet, she’ll never look back at her marriage as a failure.
“I choose to focus on the nine amazing years we had together and all these babies,” she says. “Maybe the last year-and-half that wasn’t so wonderful, why focus on that stuff? I don’t want to have to hate somebody I had a bad year or two with because we realized we’re different and not meant to be together. It’s not worth it.”
The Real Housewives of Orange County airs Mondays (9 p.m. ET) on Bravo.