John Bluher and Taylor Armstrong
04/09/2014 at 06:00 PM EDT
It was a day she never thought would be possible. On April 4, a beaming Taylor Armstrong exchanged vows
with new husband John Bluher, finally finding the happy ending she'd so longed for.
Armstrong's first marriage, to Russell Armstrong, was turbulent and abusive
, even landing the reality star in the hospital. Then, just one month after Armstrong filed for divorce in July 2011, Russell committed suicide
, leaving her with unpaid bills, an outstanding lawsuit
and their then 5-year-old daughter, Kennedy, to raise on her own.
"When everything you think is one way turns out to be different, it's a scary feeling," Armstrong, 42, tells PEOPLE. "I couldn't fathom ever loving somebody again, ever trusting somebody again."
Surviving a relationship riddled with physical and verbal attacks also left Armstrong, an author and public speaker, feeling weak and vulnerable. "I have post-traumatic stress disorder; it's part of my makeup," she says. "A lot of that comes from the volatility. The type of abusive relationship I had, [the abuse] would come out of nowhere. I just became so jumpy about everything."
After Russell's suicide, as Armstrong struggled to stay afloat amid mounting legal issues, a friend suggested she consult attorney Bluher, 56, for advice.
"There was something really noble about how he was going to help me," Armstrong says. "He had plenty of things going on in his life – he didn’t need to deal with this whole reality-TV mess – but he made a commitment to do it. Whatever John says, his word is his bond."
The pair developed a strong friendship that turned romantic a year later. "One day we looked up and it was like, 'You look different!' " Armstrong says. "It took both of us by surprise. I never thought I would look at a man again."
Still, the nascent relationship had a steep learning curve. Says Armstrong: "I said to John when we first started having feelings for each other, 'I'm exhausted, and I can't change anymore.' In my marriage there was so much control and you have to act this way or be this way or your dress is too short or too long – I hated the person I had become. I was constantly trying to be someone who was going to make [Russell] happy. So I told John, 'If you want to love me, you're going to have to love me exactly like I am.' And he has stuck to that 100 percent."
Now, Armstrong is relishing life as part of a healthy, happy family, particularly when it comes to her daughter, whom Bluher has legally adopted.
"One of my biggest regrets with my past relationship was that I wasn't strong enough to get out sooner," Armstrong says. "Kennedy wasn't exposed to the physicality of it, but she clearly knew something was wrong. Now, for her to get a father and see a healthy, very equal relationship, we're showing her what she deserves."
And Armstrong couldn’t be happier. "The only thing that bothers me about my relationship with John," she tells PEOPLE, "is that we found each other [later] in life. I wish I could have had a lifetime with him."
But the blissful newlywed isn't complaining. "The past is behind me," she says. "I'm finally getting to be the person I was meant to be."
For more exclusive photos from Armstrong's wedding, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday