From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
After surviving the toughest year of their marriage-and a tense third season of the reality series Bethenny Ever After, during which they had put their often-volatile union under the microscope-Bethenny Frankel and Jason Hoppy were ready for a fresh start. So in late May the couple and their daughter Bryn, 2, set off for Los Angeles, where Frankel would begin filming her new daytime talk show Bethenny. She hoped for relaxing beach weekends and much needed couple time. Instead she found that, once again, reality hadn't exactly lined up with her fantasy. "I want to say it's been amazing, but it hasn't been that way at all," she admits. "Our relationship has definitely been tested. It doesn't come easy for us. Sometimes you feel like, 'Oh God, are we going to make it?'"

While she's had great success with Bethenny's six-week summer trial run (see box), her thriving Skinnygirl empire (complete with yet another new line of cocktails) and multiple bestselling books, Frankel has been unable to conquer married life as easily. Within a week of their summer move to L.A., tabloids again reported that she and Hoppy, who wed in 2010, were seeking a divorce. While Frankel adamantly denies they are splitting, her fans feared the worst. "They saw me ride up on a white horse with Prince Charming," Frankel, 41, says of Hoppy, 40, the sales exec she began dating in 2008, when she was on The Real Housewives of New York City. "They were worried the fairy tale might end."

But not if the heroine has anything to say about it. "I've often thought if I didn't make my marriage work, I would have failed at my one true shot at happiness," Frankel says. As Bethenny Ever After laid bare the couple's escalating problems and frequent fights-from Frankel admitting she felt "unlovable" and "alone" to painful therapy sessions, to a searing airport confrontation in which Hoppy stormed off, announcing, "I'm done"-Frankel often wondered if her worst fears might come true. "We've both been scared," she says. "The second year of marriage was not easy. We hit bottom. [But] we came out the other side."

The breakthrough came after she and Hoppy visited daughter Bryn's pre-school art class this spring. Overcome with emotion watching a gleeful smock-clad Bryn show them her first picture, "Jason and I looked at each other and whispered 'I love you.' There's a bond between us," says Frankel. From that point the couple resolved that "we had to get it together, both of us," she adds. "You have to work for everything. Marriage should not be any different." And Frankel, whose first marriage (to Peter Sussman in 1996) lasted just eight months, says she's in it for the long haul. "In Hollywood, people just bolt. They go for the bigger, better thing. But I don't want to run," she says. "I don't have a backup plan. Jason's a great father and an amazing partner. Without him, life as I know it couldn't happen."

He also was Frankel's rock during her lowest emotional point this year: when she suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage earlier this winter. "I found out it was a girl," she says wistfully. "I thought about Bryn having a little sister, and them in the park and I would just picture it ... what could have been." She's now uncertain about trying again. "While I'm still 41 would be the time to do it," she says, adding that she has no plans to pursue fertility treatment. "But whatever happens happens. The only way I'm interested in having a baby is the old-fashioned way."

The past year brought along other hardships as well. Her credibility came under fire when Skinnygirl Margarita, promoted as having only natural ingredients, was named in a class-action lawsuit for false advertising for using a common preservative. She was then accused of faking an Ever After episode in which the couple (with her therapist and TV crew in tow) claimed to be stranded in a boat off Nantucket. (Frankel denies both allegations.) And after she sold her successful Skinnygirl cocktail line to Beam Global for a reported $120 million, her thriving career threatened to eclipse her marriage. "I feel like I'm being judged," Hoppy admitted at one point on-camera, "for not making it."

Frankel says the scrutiny of the past season, both onscreen and off, has taken a toll. "I'm used to being exposed, looking like a crazy person," she says. "But for Jason, I think it made him vulnerable. He likes being the show's supportive and fun character. Not being part of the plot line."

Despite that, Frankel doesn't believe the Bethenny Ever After cameras added to their problems. "I can't blame reality TV," she says. Raised in a troubled home by an alcoholic mom (her mother denies she's an alcoholic) after her father walked out when she was 4, Frankel says she and Hoppy, whose parents are still married, have long had their differences. "We always had the struggle to accept one another, wanting the other person to be somebody they are not," she says. Which is why many benign conversations often ended up as arguments. "Neither of us ever backs down, so every slight disagreement can become a full-scale war," she notes. "Sometimes our disputes feel like a competitive sport."

And while Hoppy, who's on temporary leave from his East Coast sales job, likes the slower pace of L.A., the relocation hasn't been without its challenges. "It's kind of like being in limbo," she says. "He's wondering what his purpose is here." If her talk show is picked up for a nationwide run as is expected, they may move to L.A. full-time. So Hoppy could eventually join Frankel's growing empire to help manage the brand. "He has attention to detail and patience that I don't have," she says. An added bonus: "We never argue about business."

Now, instead of dredging up painful past mistakes, the couple are looking to the future-one that will no longer include reality TV. "I'm done with putting my personal life and family on reality television. Enough about me. It's like when you wear an outfit with cleavage it's good, but when you walk out topless, it's too much. I don't want to take it all off."

Which is why talking about her Bethenny guests rather than herself has been a welcome relief. "They don't know what's going to come out of my mouth," says Frankel, who puts it all on the line, whether discussing her guests' sex lives or Fifty Shades of Grey. "I just go with it. It doesn't have to be perfect."

Same goes for her personal life. For now she and Hoppy (who brought Bryn to the set for daily lunch visits) are excited about what's ahead."We are all in a good place," says Frankel, who is returning to New York after wrapping her talk show. "We're renting a house on the beach. I'm finally ready to become a housewife." And maintaining her happily-ever-after is a dream she still holds close. "What I wanted first in life was to be in love and have a husband and family. That's what I still want," she says. "My business doesn't keep me warm at night. I want to be with Jason. We are going to make this work. No matter what."