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After a picturesque outdoor concert amid dragonflies, aspens and a crowd of several thousand on July 25 in Park City, Utah, LeAnn Rimes returned to Los Angeles—and a grimmer reality. On the morning of July 27 she worked out by herself, visited a therapist's office and then headed to lunch alone. The country star seemed somber while eating a salad at Kreation Kafe in Santa Monica. With her wedding ring off—and a "Love" pendant on—she picked at her manicure and texted on her phone, stopping to rest her head in her hands a few times. A few hours later Rimes, still solo, sipped white wine at Hugo's in L.A., when she got a call and burst into tears. As a waiter brought extra napkins, Rimes repeated over the phone, "I feel lonely."

With good reason: A pal of the singer's told PEOPLE that Rimes, 26, and her husband, songwriter and former dancer Dean Sheremet, 28, "have been separated for quite some time now." While there is no official reason for the hiatus, since March Rimes has been the surprising center of a soap-opera-worthy drama involving actor Eddie Cibrian, 36, and Cibrian's wife, Brandi Glanville, 36. Rimes and Cibrian met last fall on the set of the Lifetime movie Northern Lights, and in July he and Glanville split, reportedly because of his alleged ongoing affair with LeAnn. (A rep for Rimes had no comment; while not addressing Cibrian's relationship with the singer, his manager called the split with Glanville a "speed bump.")

Though Rimes has tried to stay above the fray, she has been photographed meeting with Cibrian. The news her marriage might be over has shocked her friends. "I've always thought they were very happy," says a source close to the couple, who threw an early seven-year-itch party last August to mark their anniversary. "You never saw one without the other."

Even while they've been living apart, sources say, Rimes and Sheremet still speak to each other regularly and got together as recently as July 20. "They talk, they laugh," says Rimes' longtime agent Rod Essig. "That hasn't changed." Meanwhile Rimes—who once told PEOPLE that marriage was about "finding the one you're friends with and love, flaws and everything"—still has a relationship with Cibrian as well. The two were spotted together at her friend Jeff Berger's house in Malibu July 17. "She looked ecstatic when he came to pick her up," says a witness, adding the pair were "loving and affectionate."

The Rimes pal insists that the star's marriage was troubled months before she met Cibrian, and others believe that a key reason why the marriage stopped working was that Rimes was only 19 and Sheremet was 21 when they wed. "They've certainly grown and perhaps grown apart," says Rimes' friend. Whether or not Cibrian's newfound freedom will push Rimes toward divorce is unclear. "I think Le and Dean need to feel like they've given it all they can," says the friend.

For the past several months, the pair—who once did everything from cowriting songs to grocery shopping and yoga sessions together—led separate lives as Rimes focused on acting and penning new tunes in L.A. while Sheremet worked on music in Nashville, where the couple have a home. In April friends were surprised when Sheremet wasn't by her side in Las Vegas as she received an award for her humanitarian work from the Academy of Country Music. "That was a big deal," says a Nashville friend. Adds the Rimes pal: "They've been seen without their rings, which is kind of telling."

Over the years Rimes and Sheremet's marriage was known more as a great friendship than a passionate romance. The fun-loving pair often hosted dinner parties at their home ("Dean is a great cook," says a Sheremet pal) or went out dancing, but something was missing, says a local music insider. "There was a lack of romantic energy between them that was apparent," says the source. Still, "they were a great team," says a member of their Nashville circle. "She really relied on him for advice. I never once saw a cross word between them or saw any tension at all."

That powerful bond, says a friend, "is making any movement [toward divorce] really tough for them." Over the weekend Sheremet tweeted that he was going through a "very difficult time." Says a friend of his: "All of this has been hard on him. I think he'll just button up, lay low and wait for it to pass over." For now the couple has no timetable for figuring out what's next, says the Rimes pal: "It's incredibly difficult. At some point they're going to have to come to terms with how they're going to move on."

  • Contributors:
  • Kay West/Nashville,
  • Pernilla Cedenheim/Los Angeles,
  • Allie Gross/Los Angeles,
  • Sara Hammel/Los Angeles,
  • Cathy Free/Park City.