Sweet Home Oklahoma star Jennifer Welch‘s 17-year relationship with her ex-husband has been far from easy.
The commercial and residential interior designer got together with Josh Welch, a former criminal defense attorney, in 2000 and had their first child, Dylan, in 2002. In 2005, the couple wed in Santa Fe and in 2006 welcomed their second son, Roman.
But throughout their marriage, Josh struggled with addiction, which caused him to resign from practicing law. And according to Jennifer, the main reason for the couple’s split in 2013 after almost a decade of marriage was because of Josh’s relapse.
“It’s just been a lifelong struggle with addiction for him. He relapsed, and I suspected he had. I really probed him to get sober,” Jennifer tells PEOPLE. “If you marry an addict, you know it’s possible, so that’s a risk that you take going into that marriage that there is no guarantee that this person can be sober. There’s no guarantee of that. He relapsed and we had a really candid conversation. ‘Do you want to go back to rehab? Do you want to start therapy again?’ And he didn’t — he didn’t want to.”
At that point in their marriage, Jennifer decided to divorce Josh. “I was heartbroken. I was devastated, but I knew I had to protect as much as I could: the children, our finances, our home,” she says.
“It was the breakup of our family. It leveled me,” adds Jennifer.
After the couple’s divorce was finalized, Jennifer had “really firm boundaries” with Josh and required that he pass drug tests in order to see their children — “which he couldn’t,” according to the mother of two. But in the summer of 2015, Josh did two back-to-back rehab stints at facilities in California, and he returned home a changed, sober man.
“When he came home, I could just tell he was sober. And I was like, ‘There you are!’ And what’s so interesting about it was when I divorced Josh, I was sober and consciously aware of what I was doing — he wasn’t. And so I never really had closure because I divorced this version of Josh that — nobody hates that version as much as Josh does. So when he came back from rehab and I could tell that he was sober again and I could see the light in him, I could see his soul again, I missed him. I missed that guy,” she tells PEOPLE.
Not only did Jennifer want to “give it another try” with Josh for herself, but she desired that her sons know their father. “There’s that gravitation, especially at the age that my boys are right now, to have that father figure around. … He was tired of disappointing himself, tired of disappointing his children and me,” she says.
While Jennifer, who now lives with Josh and their two sons in their family home in Oklahoma City, isn’t yet ready to tie the knot again, she’s enjoying the season that the couple is in — specifically having “normal people problems.”
“I’m not in the trenches taking grenades anymore. I can get pissed off about the dishwasher not getting unloaded and things like that,” she says. “It’s not lost on me how fantastic that is to just be pissed off about stupid things. That really does bring me serenity.”
But according to the Bravo personality, Josh needed his family just as much as they wanted him back in their lives. “For Josh, after our divorce and really not seeing the kids very much for well over a year — a year-and-a-half pushing on two — for him, he wanted to be a father more than he wanted to use drugs. … His recovery has been his family,” she says. “Having lost it and getting it back again and getting his relationship restored with his children, that has really, really helped his recovery and his sobriety immensely.”
In signing up for the new reality series, the couple was prepared to tell their story and “address addiction … head on.”
“I remember just feeling so alone when he was out using drugs, that there is another side to the rainbow. It’s hard to get there, but you can get there,” she encourages viewers whose family members or friends battle addiction.
Although Jennifer and her sons have endured years of pain as a result of Josh’s addiction, they aren’t ashamed of his past.
“The worst thing an addict can feel is shame and that’s what keeps everybody in the closet about it and we’re not ashamed. The boys are not ashamed. They know that their father was a drug addict, is a drug addict, will always be a drug addict, and we want to — if we can — help other people remove that stigma that there’s shame associated with it,” she says. “And it is a disease that people do not choose to have. Those are the things that have helped me forgive him, knowing those things.”
In addition to Josh being sober, Jennifer is happy that her family is a unit again.
“I cannot tell you how happy we are that he is doing so well with his sobriety and in his recovery,” she says, and adds, “It’s awesome for me, for him and for our kids to see that life isn’t perfect, dad has these struggles, but as a family, we can come back together.”
Sweet Home Oklahoma airs Mondays (10 p.m. ET) on Bravo.
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