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Heidi Klum and Seal's Christmas vacation in Aspen should have been a magical time. In a photo that Klum tweeted on Dec. 26, the couple smiled broadly in the snow, but offline things weren't so picture-perfect. Coming off his latest European tour, an exhausted Seal "wanted to sleep, not spend time with other people and be out all day," which led to arguments between the singer and his wife, a source close to the couple reveals. In the end, "instead of being back together as a family," says another source, "it was difficult for them to get along."

Three weeks later, it was clear that the Aspen trip was not just a blip in the pair's passionate and PDA-filled relationship: On Jan. 22 the Project Runway host, 38, and the Grammy winner, 48, stunned family, friends and fans by announcing that after much "soul-searching" they had decided to separate after almost seven years of marriage. "We have had the deepest respect for one another throughout our relationship and continue to love each other very much," they told PEOPLE in a joint statement. "But we have grown apart."

While Klum and Seal (born Sealhenry Samuel) took great pains to help their four children-Leni, 7, Henry, 6, Johan, 5, and Lou, 2-process the news at their L.A. home over the weekend, the rest of the world struggled to come to grips as well. "All this is just shocking," says Niche Media founder Jason Binn, a longtime friend of Klum's. "I've only seen them as the most loving couple." Says another friend: "I never thought they'd give up on their marriage. They seemed so committed."

The pair reinforced that commitment throughout their union with over-the-top romantic gestures. Seal proposed to Klum in 2004 in an igloo adorned with rose petals and a bear-skin rug atop a 14,000-ft.-high glacier in Whistler, B.C. The engagement ring was equally jaw dropping: a yellow diamond weighing in at more than 10 carats. Calling the scene "very, very romantic," Klum said of the moment, "I was ecstatic!" After they wed in May 2005 on a beach in Costa Careyes, Mexico, the two renewed their wedding vows on every anniversary with a spectacular party ranging from a masquerade ball to an '80s-themed get-together. At their Venetian-inspired bash last May, "they were kissing and holding hands and laughing the whole time," says a friend of Klum's. "There were no signs they were having problems."

But there were cracks in the surface of their marriage. "They were just really great at keeping it private and putting on that 'perfect couple' front that everyone expected," says another Klum pal. But "it's actually been about six months that they've been working through some issues." For one, they spent long stretches continents apart. While Seal was criss-crossing Europe last year, Klum was holding down the family fort in their $14.2 million manse in L.A., where she shuttled the kids to and from ballet classes and karate lessons. Although Seal made a concerted effort to Skype with his family and send photos from the road, "it got harder and harder for both of them to re-engage in the relationship after being apart for so long," says a source close to the couple.

Many sources interviewed for this story adamantly denied that either side was cheating. ("There was absolutely no infidelity. That is not remotely a part of what is happening here," says a source close to Seal.)

On the other hand, multiple people who know the couple say Seal has a short fuse. "His volatile, explosive temper is what the paparazzi have seen from him," says a Seal source, defending the singer. "If someone was sticking a camera in your face and your little baby's in your arms, any father on the planet would act like that. I'm not saying they don't fight. But he's not emotionally abusive." Others concede that the passion between Klum and Seal manifests itself in good times and in bad. "It's a crazy love affair with highs and lows," says a source close to the couple, who describes their last family trip to Aspen as "the final straw. When they got back they realized there were more lows than highs. They realized while they love each other, they're not in love anymore."

Klum-who started consulting with a divorce lawyer weeks ago-was devastated that their romance won't have a happy ending. "She wanted the fairy tale, and this marriage just didn't end up being what she'd hoped it to be," says Klum's longtime friend, wedding planner Mindy Weiss, who planned their lavish anniversary parties. "She thinks life should always be fun and colorful. But it's not always like that in a marriage," adds a friend of Klum's. "I think the spark left their marriage, and that wasn't okay for her. She wants everything to be perfect, and when it's not it doesn't work for her."

In the wake of the news, Seal decided not to bow out of his commitments to promote his new album Soul 2, which hit stores Jan. 24. The singer performed "Let's Stay Together" on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and told the daytime host, "To say that neither of us were grieving would be an out and out lie." When DeGeneres asked why he was still wearing his wedding ring, the singer responded, "Just because we have decided to separate doesn't necessarily mean you take off your ring and you're no longer connected to that person. We will be connected in many ways till the rest of our lives . . . Will we wear the ring for the rest of our lives? Who knows? But right now it feels really comfortable on my hand, so I have no intentions of taking it off anytime soon."

It was perhaps a fitting coda to their intense relationship, which began in 2003. Klum, then a divorcée who had been dating Italian businessman Flavio Briatore, 61, recounted how she noticed Seal walking through a New York City hotel in clingy bike shorts, telling PEOPLE, "I was magnetically attracted to him. He was so big and tall and handsome." Beyond the physical attraction, she has gushed, "he is so warm, and he is so well-mannered, so like a gentleman." Her admiration and dedication were quickly reciprocated: She was expecting Briatore's child, yet the singer was by her side throughout the pregnancy and helped raise daughter Leni from the day she was born. (He adopted her in 2009.)

After they married, the newlyweds quickly built a picture-perfect family, often spotted playing at the park or going out to dinner, sometimes with Klum's parents, Gunther and Erna, in tow to help manage the four little ones. "I would die if I didn't have my music. But I love my family much more," Seal has told PEOPLE. He later said his wife was "No. 1 at all times, then it's the kids-as strange as that may sound-then it's health and career."

As the household grew, Klum's career exploded as well: In recent years the retired Victoria's Secret model has become a businesswoman (see box) who now ranks No. 2 on Forbes's list of the world's top money-making models (Gisele Bündchen outpaces her). While Klum also travels for work, the source close to the couple says the Emmy-nominated TV host is adamant about making only quick trips so she can be home for her brood. In fact she films Germany's Next Top Model (she's the host) in L.A. and takes the kids to New York City to shoot Project Runway only after they have finished the school year. "She made her life around those kids and put her work second," says the source close to the couple.

According to another source, her ever-expanding popularity has been a sore spot for the singer-whose hits include 1991's "Crazy" and 1995's "Kiss from a Rose." "She's ambitious and really wants to create an empire. She's a very busy woman. And that's been quite tough for a guy like Seal, who ends up feeling like there's not a lot of room left for him," says an acquaintance. The source close to Seal denies any ill-will towards his wife's success, saying "he is very supportive of Heidi and her career."

For now, as the family remains living together in L.A., their sole focus is protecting their kids. "They're devoted to making sure their kids are happy and not affected by this," says a friend of the couple's. And with Seal heading to Australia soon to act as a judge in the Down Under version of The Voice and Klum gearing up production on Germany's Next Top Model, the former lovebirds are trying to navigate what's next for each other. "I do believe they love each other. I believe they were madly in love," says a source close to Seal. "But they're just two people going in two different directions."

People

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  • Contributors:
  • Reported by Pernilla Cedenheim/Los Angeles,
  • Johnny Dodd/Los Angeles,
  • Jennifer Garcia/Los Angeles,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg/Los Angeles,
  • Liza Hamm/New York City,
  • Kristen Mascia/New York City,
  • Kevin O'Donnell/New York City.