Patrick Dempsey on Saving His Marriage with Jillian: 'I Wasn't Prepared to Give up on Her'

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Patrick Dempsey fans were shocked he announced in January 2015 that he was splitting from his makeup artist wife of then 15 years, Jillian. The next few months were filled with speculation as to what tore them apart, but behind the scenes, the actor was working hard to repair his union.

“Our marriage was not something I was prepared to let go of,” Dempsey tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “I didn’t feel like we had done all the work. And we both wanted to do that work. That’s where it started.”

Still, the potential end of his marriage was “scary,” admits the actor, who stars in Bridget Jones’s Baby, out September 16.

“It’s always destabilizing when you’re potentially breaking up a family or you have a big section of your life that’s ending,” he says.

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Patrick Dempsey opens up about marriage, fatherhood and more in People Cover Story: Patrick Dempsey on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN), launching Sept. 13. Go to people.com/PEN or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and Web devices.

Gradually, and thanks to couples counseling (“very important,” he says), the parents of daughter Talula, 14 and twin sons Darby and Sullivan, 8, began to pick up the pieces.

“Everybody has their own path,” says Dempsey, 50. “Jill and I decided it was time to work on our issues and improve. We wanted to be role models for our kids like, okay, if you have differences, you can work them out.”

Dempsey, who left Grey’s Anatomy in April 2015, also began to pull back from his passion for car racing, in order to devote more time to his family.

For exclusive photos and much more from Patrick Dempsey, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday

“You can only do one thing at a time and do it well,” he says. “I [learned] to prioritize. Our union has to be the priority. I wasn’t prepared to give up on her and she wasn’t either. We both wanted to fight for it.” “

Now, Dempsey refers to his marriage as a “new beginning,” and says he’s learned what it takes to keep his relationship strong.

“You’ve got to keep at it,” he says. “You’ve got to communicate, and stay open and not get lazy. And not give up. And lots of sex!”

Bridget Jones’s Baby hits theaters September 16.

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