From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
"We would like to announce that after seven years together we have decided to formally separate. For those who follow these sorts of things, we would like to explain that our separation is not the result of any of the speculation reported by the tabloid media. This decision is the result of much thoughtful consideration. We happily remain committed and caring friends with great love and admiration for one another. We ask in advance for your kindness and sensitivity in the coming months."
Respectfully, Jennifer Aniston & Brad Pitt
—in a statement to PEOPLE

They're a couple who once described themselves as "phone junkies," keeping up a constant patter even when an ocean lay between them. But last week Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston found themselves picking up the phone—together—to do the most difficult dialing of their 4½-year marriage. One by one they called relatives, close friends and business associates to break the news that would become public on Jan. 7: They had decided to separate. Yet the calls did not have the teary, pass-the-tissues tone that such heartbreaking news might suggest. Pitt "didn't want people to think the separation is a bad thing," says a friend of the couple's. "He emphasized that they were in a good place. The decision was good for them. They're getting along. They really care about each other."

To be sure, almost as shocking as the news of the split is the extraordinarily civil manner in which Hollywood's golden couple—whose romance seemed to so successfully straddle A-list glamor and down-to-earth fun—have approached it. "They still love each other," says a source close to Aniston and Pitt. "The separation is a step back to see if their relationship is going to be forever or if it's not. They're searching for the answer, which is not an easy one to come up with." And, observes the source, "they're still very close."

They certainly seemed close during their Caribbean getaway last week, a joint vacation with best friends Courteney Cox Arquette and David Arquette (who brought their 7-month-old daughter Coco). Although they had already decided to separate, the trip had been scheduled long before, so Aniston, 35, and Pitt, 41, agreed that "'we should still go and have a great time,'" says the source. They kissed, laughed, held hands. But not all of that may have been real—or it may not have been real all the time. When the foursome had dinner at RumZa, an Anguilla club, Cox and Arquette "were very affectionate," says one observer, while Pitt and Aniston were more reserved. "I never saw them touch during the entire meal," says the observer. "They seemed more like they were on a first date." As the couple left the club, they spotted photographers outside. "They put their arms around each other and had these big smiles on their faces like they were incredibly happy," says the observer. "It was the opposite of the couple I'd seen inside."

So what went wrong exactly? According to several sources, it became increasingly difficult for the couple to balance work and family. Ever since they exchanged lavishly romantic wedding vows in July 2000, they have been dogged by the Baby Question (see box). As recently as last month, Pitt told Diane Sawyer of his hopes for the near future. "God, I'm going to say it: Kids. Family. I'm thinking family. Yeah. I got family on the mind." Although Aniston has expressed similar desires in the past, one source who recently spoke to the actress notes, "She has been resisting having a child for a number of reasons. One was her career. Also, she wanted to make sure that [the marriage] would last. There was a little doubt that crept in. He was much more interested in having a child. I think it was Jen that broke it off. He was a half step behind her."

Beyond baby issues, the couple also grappled with rumors of a fling between Pitt and Angelina Jolie, 29, his onscreen spouse in this summer's Mr. and Mrs. Smith (see box). Such reports have been dismissed by both stars, and a source who worked with Pitt says, "Brad is a very monogamous person. He's always been with one woman. He doesn't stray."

And yet the same source notes that Pitt, who bonded with both the actress and her 3-year-old son Maddox, "was influenced by [Jolie]"—particularly her humanitarian efforts. "He changed," says the source. "It might be slight, but it's noticeable. And Jennifer knew it." Even casual Pitt watchers might have noticed the actor's newly displayed gravitas: In recent months he has used his star status to help promote Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid, stem-cell research and, on a November trip to Africa, AIDS relief. (He plans to return to Africa in the near future.) Beyond Mr. and Mrs. Smith, he has no upcoming films on tap, preferring instead to focus on his nonshowbiz pursuits. "It seems like Brad is having an Oprah moment," says an industry source. "Everything for him is not about Hollywood right now."

His wife, on the other hand, is squarely in moviemaking mode. Having wrapped 10 seasons on Friends last spring, she currently has at least half-a-dozen big-screen projects in the works. "In many ways, her career is just starting," says the industry source. "The timing is off for them."

Even without their diverging career paths, the pressures of fame associated with two such high-wattage stars have taken their toll in the years since the pair were first introduced in 1998. "It's not a career issue or an issue of spending too much time apart," says a source close to the couple. "The issue is about them as individuals. They both need to reconnect to who they were before they met and married. They've changed in the years they've known each other. They live in a fishbowl. They spend so much time trying to figure out how to behave while everyone's looking that they gradually lost sight of themselves as individuals. And despite their nice lifestyle and having everything they might want, they weren't happy. They lost a sense of self."

Now it seems that they may have lost each other as well. Or maybe not. As the inevitable questions arise about who gets what and where they go from here (see box), those close to them say the end of Brad and Jen has yet to be written. "They need to regroup," says one source. "If they're meant to be back together, they'll figure that out. If not, they still love each other. They're in a peaceful place."

The Way They Were

Matt Damon summed it up best, even if the syntax went a bit astray. Brad and Jen, he said, "are the couple you want to be." Young, lean, sexy, blond—that describes each of them apart. United, they had a special bond, a relaxed chemistry that generated a nice, soft glow. To look back at them now is to sigh a little: Pity, isn't it, things just didn't work out.

1998
The first picture: A photo of the pair at a concert launched them as a public couple.

1999
In a surprise concert cameo with Sting in Manhattan, Pitt showed off a sparkler on Aniston's hand and sang from one of the singer's hits: "We're going to Vegas, we're gonna get wed/ So fill her up, son, don't be staring/ Yeah, that's a real diamond she be wearing."

1999
Their first spin at the Emmys.

2000
They wed on a bluff in Malibu on July 29. It was a gorgeous circus: four bands, a gospel choir and 50,000 flowers.

2000
On the red carpet at the Emmys in Los Angeles (she won two years later).

2001
The family that roots together: The couple cheered on the Lakers against the 76ers at a game at the Staples Center L.A.

2000
The golden couple at Vanity Fair's post-Oscar bash.

2002
Three years before what will likely be their final New Year's as a married couple, they spent the start of '02 in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

2002
At the Emmys again (he won one in 1996; she won in 2003).

2003
At the annual Friends Finding a Cure gala for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research in L.A.

CRAZY IN LOVE

Romantic scenes from a marriage

Promises, Promises
During their July 2000 nuptials, Pitt and Aniston read vows that they had composed themselves. Pitt promised to "split the difference on the thermostat." Aniston, getting a little misty, pledged to always make his "favorite banana milk shake."

Showering Affection
When renovating the couple's Beverly Hills home, Pitt took special care with the details of their master bathroom. He imported travertine marble from a mine near Rome and had a crew move the tub "pyramid style" by rolling it over pipes. Pitt thought it was well worth the effort. "The bathroom was the first thing in the house I worked on at the time when Jen and I were really hooking up strong," he told W in 2001. "Things are on your mind...and I guess I had a dirty mind at the time."

Hairy Situation
In 2002, when Pitt grew a Grizzly Adams beard for a film, Aniston took it on the chin, telling PEOPLE, "You marry someone for better or worse. But I helped him shave it. We did all sorts of facial designs as it got less and less. There was the Amish look, the bounty hunter thing, the French guy...."

Circles of Love
Pitt himself helped design their white-gold-and-diamond wedding bands, working with Italian jeweler Damiani. He also collaborated on Aniston's diamond engagement ring.

I'll Be There for You
In 2001 Pitt proved a true friend by sharing the small screen with Aniston on her hit TV show. Pitt guest-starred in Friends' Thanksgiving episode as a former high school classmate who loathed Aniston's character Rachel.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
In 2001 Pitt went all out on Valentine's Day, filling Aniston's Friends trailer with 1,500 roses and using petals to display the message "I love my wife."

Mi Casa, Su Casa
Jennifer has come up with some interesting birthday gifts for her man, including Girls Gone Wild videos. Another year she surprised Pitt by fulfilling one of his longtime wishes. She knew that Brad wanted to spend the night in a renowned Greene & Greene-designed house on the cliffs of Northern California. Though the home was privately owned, Aniston sweet-talked the owners into letting them stay for a romantic weekend.

What Lies Ahead?

Aniston and Pitt face some tough decisions

After the announcement of their breakup, it was quickly back to business: Aniston was due to start shooting Friends with Money in L.A. on Jan. 11, Pitt to fly to Japan Jan. 12 to promote Ocean's Twelve. But it will soon be time to make hard choices. Who will sleep where? Will Pitt stay friends with the Friends? And more important, will they decide to divorce?

If they decide to end their marriage, says Dennis Wasser, who represented Tom Cruise in his divorce from Nicole Kidman, their not having kids makes it somewhat easier. But "there are no straightforward divorces," he says. "That is good if they've stated they remain friends—that is very encouraging. It helps a lot." For now, these other questions come to mind.

WHERE WILL THEY LIVE?
The couple own several homes, including a $13.5 million Beverly Hills house—lavishly renovated over two years—and a more modest beachfront getaway in Santa Barbara. Who will bed down where? "I don't know if they've got that far," says a friend. One possibility for the near future: Pitt has favored luxe L.A. hotels such as L'Ermitage and the Hotel Bel-Air when between homes.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THEIR PRODUCTION COMPANY?
Plan B, which the couple started two years ago with their former manager Brad Grey, has more than a dozen movies in the works, starting with a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starring Johnny Depp, due out in July. But Grey is gone: He was hired last week as the new chief of Paramount Pictures and said he would sever his ties with Plan B. "Nothing has been decided" about the company's future, says an inside source. But losing Pitt, Aniston or both could spell trouble. The day before the split, Grey praised his cofounders: "They are talented, and they have great taste."

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THEIR CAREERS?
No rest for Aniston, whose comedy Rumor Has It comes out in April and drama Derailed recently wrapped. Next up is Friends with Money, costarring Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack as best buddies. She also has the comedy Diary and crime caper Gambit teed up and is developing a bio of war photographer Dickey Chapelle through Plan B. Pitt, whose Mr. and Mrs. Smith hits theaters in May, hasn't announced any projects, though Plan B has been developing a movie about the feuding Hatfields and McCoys for him.

HOW WILL THE SPLIT AFFECT THEIR STAR POWER?
They'll be fine, industry sources say, though Pitt's pull is in more danger of slipping. "She added likability to him," says a producer. "He wasn't just a handsome, rich movie star. He was a handsome, rich movie star who married a woman of quality." Aniston, less of a big-screen draw, "has proved to be a wonderful character actress but not a movie star. Do people go see her because she's attached to Brad Pitt? No."

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Kwala Mandel,
  • Brenda Rodriguez,
  • Pamela Warrick,
  • K.C. Baker,
  • Amy Longsdorf,
  • Kate Klise,
  • Peter Mikelbank,
  • Steve Helling.