During an exclusive chat with PEOPLE, the Envy owner, 39, looked back on her early seasons on the hit Bravo show, which were marked by constant fighting and family turmoil for the sisters-in-law.
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“In the beginning it was super hard because it was basically Melissa against Teresa and it was very hard,” she says. “We were at each other’s throats and the whole experience was very, very negative. It was a divided show. It was a horrible, horrible time in our lives.”
Fans remember that all too well. When Melissa joined RHONJ, her husband Joe Gorga was arguing with his sister Teresa and brother-in-law Joe Giudice. Their battles over the next few seasons drove the two siblings further and further apart, and bled over to Melissa and Teresa. A 2012 showdown had Melissa shouting at Teresa, “Run away, coward, like you always do when you’re wrong,” while a 2013 fight had Melissa begging the mother of four “on my friggin’ knees, to stop hurting us.”
They’ve since made up, all agreeing to bury the hatchet after Teresa returned home from her 11-month prison sentence for bank, mail, wire, and bankruptcy fraud back in December 2015 (Joe Giudice is currently serving his sentence for the same crimes). But this season, there’s been seeds of tension building.
In last week’s episode, Teresa confronted Melissa during a cast trip to Oklahoma, stressing that she should control her husband and force him to spend more time with their ailing father.
Despite the bickering, Melissa says she and Teresa are “in a good place” now.
“We are going to disagree,” she says. “We get into arguments on and off camera, and it’s all real stuff. It’s legit what’s going on and we don’t sugar-coat things. I discuss how I feel about it and she discusses how she feels about it. Neither of us are bulls——- it or faking it.”
Still, Melissa does have hesitation and worry that those squabbles could lead to history repeating itself.
“Teresa doesn’t feel that way — I do,” Melissa confesses. “I’m the one who is always ahead, I’m a heavy thinker. So I’m the one who’s like, ‘Oh my God, we’re not going back to the dark place, are we?’ I get that way. I get very nervous when we start to argue. And I think I even discuss that during the season.”
“If she starts to go to that dark place, my body stars to shake,” Melissa said. “Because we can’t go there again. If we go there again, it’s over. There’s no way — we can’t come back from that.”
Luckily, it doesn’t appear something as drastic as that is close to happening for Teresa and Melissa.
“We’re a real family,” Melissa says. “There’s so much that’s gone on that we’ve had to go through together, I think it’s actually made us so much stronger than we were before. We’re able to have an argument and then have dinner on Sunday, and we couldn’t do that before.”
And as for that other conflict currently facing their family — with Joe Giudice ordered to be deported following the end of his prison sentence, a decision he’s appealing — Melissa says they’re all just standing strong as a family.
“Teresa’s a very private person, and I learned that throughout the years with all that’s gone on in her life,” Melissa says. “When this happened, I called her and let her know, ‘This is horrible news. If you need me to help in any way, I’m here.’ And that’s all you do with Teresa in this situation. It’s a heavy thing. It’s a very sad thing. We’re still praying and hoping that this turns around. Because he’s a father, and those little girls, they all love him so much.”
The Real Housewives of New Jersey airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on Bravo.