From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Are we doing this? Are we really going to do this?"

It's not yet noon, but Bethenny Frankel is seriously considering ordering some tequila. As she settles into a lounge chair by the pool on the roof of Soho House, an exclusive members-only club in lower Manhattan, the sparkling water and warm air give the late April day a decidedly summery feel and lead Frankel to throw caution to the wind. She orders a cocktail laced with cilantro and chiles and leans back. "Are we doing this too?" she says, referring to the decision to break her silence about her increasingly bitter divorce. One gets the sense this won't go down as easily as the tequila. In an hour-long conversation in which her voice often breaks with emotion, Frankel says, "I kind of sway between being frayed and stressed and on the brink in some ways; wracked with nerves. And then feeling okay and certain. This is my life now."

Her life now is markedly changed since she announced she was separating from husband Jason Hoppy, 41, in December. Over the years, fans watched Frankel and Hoppy fall in love, marry and welcome a daughter, Bryn, now 3, on the reality series Bethenny Ever After. When they split, the former Real Housewives of New York City star released a statement in which she promised to "amicably co-parent" with her ex. But the pair were soon duking it out in family court. At issue for both sides is primary custody of Bryn: child support, medical and dental expenses. And both Hoppy (whose attorneys declined to comment for this story) and Frankel would like to retain the marital residence, a sprawling Tribeca loft. Until the legal battle is resolved, the two are uneasily sharing that space and trading off time with their daughter. "My living situation is very, very stressful," she says. "I don't think it's very healthy for anyone involved. It's very upsetting. You just have to endure it."

For Frankel, who has earned millions from her ever-expanding Skinnygirl lifestyle empire (see box) and is on the brink of launching a new syndicated talk show, Bethenny, the failure of her marriage has been a setback in a life filled with as much pain as success. Prone to saying she was "raised by wolves," Frankel has long been estranged from her mother, whom she has characterized as alcoholic and deeply unstable; her late father, a race-horse trainer, was absent for most of her youth. Her marriage to Hoppy, a pharmaceutical sales rep originally from Hazleton, Pa., seemed like a chance at a fairy-tale ending. Yet early on, Frankel detected that the two might not be compatible. "Maybe that's the first lesson learned: to go with my gut," she says. "Because I waited a long time to see if I even wanted to be in this relationship. I didn't go with my first instinct."

Within a year of Bryn's arrival, the two were frequently fighting—often on-camera during Bethenny Ever After. Much of the trouble, she contends, stemmed from feelings of inadequacy. The couple went to counseling, and Frankel saw a therapist individually, but "I felt like there was an expectation to be someone that I wasn't," she says. "All the things that I've tried to resolve in therapy and get past from my childhood reared their ugly head in my marriage. My marriage made me feel like I was a bad person, like I was damaged, I was dysfunctional, I was never going to be happy. But I don't believe that to be true. Yet there I was—in a relationship that made me feel that way."

Frankel says counseling wasn't enough to save the marriage. "Two people have to fight for it, not just stick with it," she says. Instead she felt as though the only salvation would be radically changing who she was. "But that's not okay," she says, her voice catching for a moment. "You know what you're getting into when you choose someone. You can't just then say, 'Oh, I'd like you to be someone completely different.' " Frankel says she nevertheless threw herself into trying to fix things. "I have never beaten myself up the way I did during my marriage," she says. "I'd say, 'I need to be more like this, I need to be more like that, I'm not normal, I came from a screwed-up background.' "

At one point she put plans in motion to move her family to Los Angeles, where she planned to tape Bethenny. She hoped the more suburban environment of southern California would be an improvement. "Moving to L.A. was like having another baby," says Frankel, who suffered a miscarriage in the winter of 2012. "I wanted to save my marriage, and I thought that would do it." But after feeling so long like "a square having to fit into a circle," she reached a breaking point. "Someone said to me, 'You're lucky if you get 90 years on this planet—why would you spend so many of them being miserable?' That was a defining moment. I had been trying to weigh how much unhappiness was still enough to live with every day."

The epiphany finally gave Frankel the courage to make a choice. "In a split, you go through so many stages," she says. "To finally rip the Band-Aid off, to arrive at a place where you're 100 percent certain you've done the right thing, there's comfort in that." Hoppy, however, continues to sport his wedding band, a move that baffles Frankel. "It's an interesting choice," she says carefully of Hoppy's ring-wearing. "And I don't understand it." Still, as their lawyers continue to spar, she is more convinced than ever she did the right thing. "It wouldn't have worked," she now says of her marriage. "And couldn't have worked."

Now the two must work out their differences for the sake of their daughter. Sources say much of Hoppy's motivation to continue the battle in court has to do with how much of Frankel's vast fortune he feels entitled to, as well as his desire to maintain the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. A longtime friend of Hoppy's counters, "Jason wants to make sure he gets his share of what he helped her build."

Neither side disputes that both care deeply for their daughter, who recently celebrated her third birthday at a candy-filled party with both her mom and dad. And Frankel holds out hope that one day the pair will get along well enough to share all family events and holidays together. "Because of Bryn, I can never say, 'I wish this had never happened,' " says Frankel. "I have a beautiful child who I love so much, who is a part of both of us. In my marriage, I made a mistake. It is what it is. I made the wrong choice. But I do have my daughter, who is so beautiful and amazing in every way."

Now she is finding her rhythm as a newly single mom. Despite her high-powered image, when it's Frankel's time with Bryn, she enjoys simple indulgences like going for ice cream and hanging out in playgroups with other moms, whom she says have been a source of support. "It seemed like it would be difficult to do things on my own, but it's not," says Frankel. "Everyone knows that Bryn is my first priority, she's the first thing on my schedule and everything gets booked around her. And when I'm with Bryn, it's just me and her. It is such dedicated, devoted time. It's so rewarding, and I just feel so fortunate to have that with her."

For a woman who has voiced her determination not to repeat the mistakes of her childhood, Frankel says her daughter's becoming a child of divorce, just as she herself was, hasn't been a cause for concern. "Growing up at a race track, going to 13 different schools, going from eating off a card table at night to suddenly having a room full of toys—divorce is the least of what caused a problem for me," she says. "It was the people who were my parents, and the choices they made." She's equally resolute that the body image and eating disorders she struggled with as a teen and in her 20s will not be passed down to her young daughter. "People ask me about Bryn and food, and I have no noise about that in my head," says Frankel. "She has such a normal childhood, she is so pure and unspoiled. I don't have any fears about that." When it comes to her own future—particularly the prospect of finding love again - Frankel is far less sanguine. "After you have food poisoning, you don't exactly run out to a buffet, you know?" she says with a wry laugh. "This [divorce] is not going to make me softer. Bryn made me softer, but this is making me tougher; it's hardening some edges, so I worry about that. And I sometimes think, 'How am I going to be able to trust anyone after this?' "

As for tabloid rumors that have linked her with Manhattan hedge-fund billionaire Warren Lichtenstein, an old friend who has been supportive during her split, Frankel laughs off any suggestion of a romance. But she does offer that the next serious man in her life will have to accept her for who she is —and be able to hold his own in her hard-driving world. "My guy friends tell me I should be with people who have a similar work ethic to me, who are passionate about making a difference," says Frankel. "Not so much financially powerful, but involved in helping and inspiring people."

And if she doesn't find Mr. Right? "People like to corner me with these comments like, 'You can't go to bed with your money at night,' " says Frankel. Yet no one needs to fear that Frankel will be spending her evenings tossing and turning. "I don't go to bed with my money," she says pointedly. "I go to bed with my daughter—and then I fall asleep."

  • Contributors:
  • With Elizabeth McNeil.