30 Important Domestic Violence Lessons To Learn From The Gabby Petito Brian Laundrie Case
As an author and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, I’ve learned a lot about the predictable patterns of unhealthy relationships. After years of personal experiences, research, and outreach, I’ve learned to recognize the tell-tale signs of abuse. I am not a licensed therapist, social worker, police officer, or minister.
In recent days, the tragic events involving Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie have given us a lot to learn. This case is still under investigation, and I can only make assumptions based on the textbook patterns of abuse I’ve witnessed too many times to count.
I also recognize that multiple families are grieving, and I have tremendous empathy for everyone involved. However, many survivors will resonate with at least some of the following insights, and I’m hoping we can use this tragedy to shift the way we as a culture approach the complicated issue of domestic abuse.
Let’s examine 30 important lessons this couple teaches us:
1. Followers on social media saw a smiling, happy couple, full of love and wanderlust, setting out for a cross-country adventure while documenting all the joys of young life. In many cases, targets become very good at smiling through the pain.
2. When the public was shown body camera footage captured by Moab City Police officer Daniel Robbins, (who pulled Laundrie and Petito over after the 911 call on August 12), some viewers assumed Petito was suffering from mental illness and Laundrie, while nervous, was the steadier of the two.
3. Other viewers assumed both partners were equally at fault — the old “it takes two” myth that doesn’t really apply to most abusive situations.
4. Some people even assumed Petito was the abuser and Laundrie was the victim.
5. These three assumptions probably crossed everyone’s mind as a possibility (they did mine). Healthy-minded people tend to give others the benefit of the doubt, especially when someone is being accused of a negative act. Also, we can all understand that mental illness is a difficult situation and can tax even the kindest most gentle of souls (and the people who love them). Unfortunately, in many cases, this thought pattern leads us to assume the victim is mentally ill or that the victim is to blame for an altercation.
6. “Victim blaming” can happen even in the worst cases of abuse because we don’t see the longitudinal story unfolding. What we don’t see is that the target has managed to keep things together until she reached her threshold, at which time we may see her crying, yelling, or breaking down emotionally. By exhibiting those behaviors, many might assume the target is “crazy,” and it’s natural for us to feel as if the more stable person is more trustworthy.
7. If we listen carefully to Laundrie’s conversation with the officers, he even laughs and says, “She’s crazy.” (17.09) Then he dismisses it as a joke. Of course, he’s already put this claim in the officers’ minds (and by the nonchalant way he says it, many might assume it’s not the first time he’s said these words.)
8. So while viewers (and officers) start wondering if perhaps the target is “crazy,” the abuser plays the part of the poor, patient partner who has to deal with this irrational person. In the video, Laundrie mentions Petito’s anxiety and her OCD, painting her as an unstable partner. (Please note: I’m not at all justifying any physical violence against either party. No one should intentionally harm any other person. Period.)
9. A typical abuser would be skilled at convincing people that he’s innocent, while in fact he’s been acting very differently behind closed doors, pushing his target to this point intentionally and feeding on her emotional break. Many abusers LOVE to see evidence that they’ve hurt their target. They LOVE to see their target in pain. For this reason, “breaking” the target is usually the goal from the start. In cases of abuse, it may take an abuser hours, weeks, months, or even years to break the target, but he won’t stop until he gets that reaction, and then he’ll point the finger and say, “See? She’s crazy. I’m just trying to keep her calm.” And then he’ll do it again. And again. And again.
10. As a result, some people will buy into that false narrative. Even the target can be brainwashed to doubt her own truth. Which may be one reason we see Petito making many excuses for Laundrie’s behavior and taking the blame for everything.
11. In contrast, we see Laundrie blaming Petito, insisting he never hit her, and saying he was just trying to keep her calm. He’s charming. He comes across as a loving and loyal partner. He’s joking around with the officers and even gives one a fist bump in the end. All the while, his fiancée is at risk of being charged with domestic assault and possibly spending the night in jail.
12. Later, we’ll hear the 911 recording that (it seems) the responding officers were not fully informed of at the time: “I’d like to report a domestic dispute.” The 49-second audio recording continues as the caller says, “The gentleman was slapping the girl.” When the dispatcher asks him to confirm that the man was slapping the girl, the caller responds, “Yes, and then we stopped, they ran up and down the sidewalk, he proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.”
13. But long before the 911 call was made public, many survivors could already see through the spin playing out on the video footage. They easily recognized the “red flags” because these cycles become the norm for victims of long-standing abuse. Many targets eventually become conditioned to believe everything the abuser does is her fault. Covering for the abuser, accepting all the blame, trying harder to make the abuser happy—this warped reality becomes the only truth a target knows.
14. Also, it seems clear that Petito doesn’t want her fiancé to be in any trouble. She’d rather pay the price and protect the man she loves. And because she probably believes he only acted this way because of her mood/behaviors/anxiety/OCD/job, she doesn’t want him to be blamed. This is also the norm in abusive relationships.
15. Many experienced and well-trained officers see right through this typical pattern. Others buy the cover-up story. And, sadly, because some officers are also abusers, some side with the abuser even when they know exactly what’s going on. Throughout the video, we get the sense that Officer Robbins senses there’s more to the story.
16. I credit the police in Petito’s situation, especially Officer Robbins. The four responding officers (two of whom were park rangers) remained calm, they separated the couple, interviewed them individually, split them up for the night, consulted the domestic violence shelter … many would say they did everything right considering the information they had at the time.
17. I imagine the officers involved may be suffering from tremendous guilt and wondering if they could have prevented Petito’s death, but I want to give credit to the officers in this case. While it’s easy to look back and say maybe they should have handled things differently, knowing what we now know, I was impressed with how well they treated both Laundrie and Petito (and, sadly, I was thinking how rare it is to see that level of respect and professionalism in most cases of domestic violence, particularly in the South where I’ve been most involved with survivors’ stories.)
18. After Petito was reported missing, many people expressed shock in response to the Laundrie family’s refusal to cooperate early in the investigation. Petito reportedly lived with the Laundrie family for more than a year. Anyone can see that this family will do anything to protect their son, even at the cost of an innocent young woman who was a real part of their family and soon to be their daughter-in-law. While most of us can certainly understand parents wanting to protect their son, most would agree they crossed a moral line when his fiancée went missing.
19. But perhaps it goes deeper than that. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a system of enablers who not only allowed their son to abuse Petito (which may have been a factor in her reported anxiety) but also a system of gaslighters who may have always been shifting the truth to keep Petito confused and make her believe she was the problem.
20. It’s not a far stretch to assume Petito was caught in a system of abuse. And once a target is caught in that psychological web, it’s extremely difficult to see a way out. Reality becomes flipped.
21. It’s also worth noting that Petito and Laundrie had been involved in various levels of a relationship since their teens. This is also commonly observed in dysfunctional partnerships.
22. These immature relationships work beautifully when both partners grow together and mature emotionally. But when one wants to keep the other down, naïve, and under his control … and the other is growing, learning, and maturing … it doesn’t work.
23. We hear Petito tell the officer that Laundrie didn’t think she could succeed with her travel blog (3.25). It seems clear that he didn’t believe in her and that he was trying to make her doubt herself.
24. Throughout the conversation, he implies that he locked her out of the van because she wouldn’t calm down. But when we listen to the full video, it seems he was upset because they’d spent too much time at the coffee shop with her working on her website when he wanted to go hiking. This suggests that because she wasn’t in the van when he was ready to leave, he lost his temper.
25. In the moments that followed, the altercation became physical. Reportedly, Laundrie squeezed Petito’s face with his hand, cut her down verbally, and criticized her.
26. Some would argue that this escalating abuse typically persists until the target reacts emotionally and/or physically. If this case follows the norm, Laundrie may have been trying to break her spirit, intentionally.
27. Why? Again, if this case follows the typical situation, it would likely be because Petito’s focus wasn’t 100% on Laundrie. She had found this new job she enjoyed. She was succeeding at it, and it was allowing her to connect with other people. (Remember, she’d already left her job as a nutritionist to travel around the country with Laundrie.)
28. In a healthy relationship, the new job might be considered a positive opportunity for Petito. Especially considering Laundrie admits they have very little money (not even enough to afford a hotel room to prevent his fiancée from going to jail). But in an unhealthy relationship, the abuser wants the target all to himself. And when that doesn’t happen, he can become increasingly violent.
29. Petito now had this one little piece of her life that Laundrie couldn’t control, so if we’re looking at textbook patterns, perhaps her blog angered him. Perhaps he didn’t like all the attention she was getting on social media. Perhaps he punished her for it. And then a cycle developed. Even though she was doing nothing wrong by building a new career.
30. The next thing we know, we have a missing person, a recovered body, a young man on the run, and several families destroyed. Too much grief to measure. And the truth is, it will happen again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day until we learn to recognize and respond to abusive situations in healthier ways.
The overall takeaway?
When we see someone at her emotional end during a domestic dispute, we shouldn’t assume she’s crazy. We shouldn’t buy into the false narrative given by the abuser. We shouldn’t believe the cover-up story by the target who has been conditioned to carry all the blame and shame. And we shouldn’t assume they’re going to be okay.
Instead, we should all learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. We should learn to recognize the warning signs of abuse. We should engage in respectful, fact-based conversations about trauma bonds, abusive cycles, and emotional intelligence.
We should be familiar with terms like gaslighting, hovering, love bombing, enabling, triangulating, and projecting. We should stop blaming targets and help them reclaim their truth. And we should stop repeating the age-old myths that keep targets trapped in these dangerous and all-too-often deadly cycles.
Finally, while I’ve used the most common scenario of male-on-female violence in this article, we should recognize that abuse crosses all barriers and can impact anyone regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, age, or socio-economic level.
And we should stop assuming these situations will get better in time. Personally, I haven’t heard of one abusive relationship that became healthier. Not one. Not with therapy. Not with church. Not with prayer or forgiveness or complete surrender. When an abuser is determined to destroy his target, he will not stop until that target is erased from this world or stripped from her life.
And in many cases, he’ll walk away without any consequences, often taking the target’s finances, home, vehicle, reputation, or even her children with him.
Please don’t let the next statistic be you or someone you love. For support, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline. From a safe phone, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.
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Julie Cantrell is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author, editor, ghostwriter, and TEDx speaker. Her newest book hits shelves October 12. Learn more and subscribe to her free monthly newsletter: www.juliecantrell.com
This article was originally published at Facebook. Reprinted with permission from the author.