LeAnn Rimes is ready to come clean. And despite being the subject of tawdry headlines last year during her affair with actor Eddie Cibrian and the subsequent end of her marriage, she firmly believes everything happened for a reason. "I take responsibility for everything I've done," says the country star, who's now in a relationship with Cibrian. "I hate that people got hurt. But I don't regret the outcome."
While it was happening, Rimes, 27, says she was racked with guilt and sadness and could barely get out of bed as her seven-year marriage to former dancer and songwriter Dean Sheremet, 29, crumbled. "I was out of balance. My marriage was out of balance. There was something missing," says Rimes, nestled in a leather couch at the L.A. home where she lives alone. When she met Cibrian, who was married with two kids, on the set of the TV movie Northern Lights
in November 2008, there was a shared attraction, but it wasn't until a few months later that their friendship "tipped over," says the singer. "It was very emotionally driven. I never once thought what I was doing was okay."
In March 2009 the couple were outed by a magazine, and Rimes immediately confessed to her husband. "As much as I had disrespected Dean, I tried to respect him as much as I could moving forward," she says. "I tried to be as truthful as I could. I remember telling Dean that I had feelings for Eddie." Still, for a few months, they tried to work on their marriage. In the end, she says, it became "very apparent it wasn't a marriage that fulfilled either one of us." (The divorce will be final soon. Sheremet, who is now a chef at Nobu in New York and is dating a woman he met last year, tells PEOPLE, "What happened is in the past, and I wish LeAnn nothing but the best.")
Rimes insists that she and Cibrian, 36, who chose not to comment so she could share her story, both had marital problems before they ever met. (Cibrian filed for divorce from his wife, former model Brandi Glanville, 37, last August.) "The hardest thing to hear is someone call either of us a home wrecker, because we didn't walk into a perfectly happy marriage and ruin it," she says. Adds her songwriter friend Darrell Brown, who remains close to both her and Sheremet: "This wasn't one person saying, 'I think I'll go this direction.' I feel they are becoming who they're supposed to be."
Part of that was simply growing up-and apart. "I got married at 19 for all the right reasons: I was in love, and he was my best friend," says Rimes. "But I don't think I expected myself to change so much from 19 to 27." The youngest-ever Grammy winner and the caretaker of her family since her parents divorced, "I became an adult at 13-a fake adult," she says. "I almost jumped over all of the lessons that you would learn as a kid. Now I'm really becoming a whole person so that I have a good foundation to set my future on."
That future, says Rimes, may include another walk down the aisle. And "I would love to have a child of my own," she says. "I don't know what the future holds, but I know it holds Eddie." Rimes, who is in therapy, says she doesn't want to make the same mistakes. "Eddie and I are super-honest with each other. Even if it's going to hurt, we both want the truth," she says. "It's not just one person in the relationship who's taking care of the other-it's both of us putting the effort in. We are two separate people. He supports my independence, but he's also there when I need him."
She's also learning to navigate family life, which means planning adventures at the local carnival or whipping up Star Wars
pancakes for Cibrian's sons Mason, 7, and Jake, 3. "I went from having zero kids to having two around. That's a whole other level of growing up fast," she says. "They're not my children, but they're a part of my life. They are so much fun."
Rimes, whose new single "Swingin'" is out on June 14, says now that she's made peace with herself and those close to her, she's ready to face the rest of the world. "I never expected my life to be like this, but I'm making the best of it," she says. "I'm really happy. I've moved on, and I hope there can be some forgiveness and acceptance."