FBI confirms social media influencer Gabby Petito died in an apparent homicide, and her fiancé is missing. Were there subtle signs of abuse? We asked the experts.
When the world heard that Gabby Petito, 22, was missing, many feared the worst.
Any of us who’ve been in a toxic relationship, or witnessed one, suspected the news that might come out next: Things got out of control, and Gabby was no longer alive.
Later, when her fate was confirmed, it was both tragic and a plot twist, considering just weeks earlier she’d been named the primary aggressor in a public altercation between her and her partner, Brian Laundrie, 23.
Police footage from that incident shows us that domestic violence isn’t always cut and dry.
It’s muddy and, at times, difficult to detect. It can build like a slow crescendo until one day, it’s too late. Someone snaps. A line has been crossed. And life is never the same.
While we don’t know what happened the day Gabby died, and we may never know, many of us have heard and seen the police officer’s bodycam footage. The subtle signs of abuse were easy to pinpoint if you know what to look for.
Domestic violence survivors often think they are to blame for poor treatment.
“Oftentimes, a survivor’s feelings toward perpetrators are complex,” says Lauren Cook, PsyD, a therapist based in Los Angeles. “Rarely do we have relationships with people that are all good or all bad.
“In situations where intimate partner violence is present, yes, there is aggression, isolating, and blaming,” she adds. “But there is also often passion, intrigue, and times when partners are loving toward one another.”
This creates a sense of cognitive dissonance, says Cook, which is when you have difficulty integrating conflicting pieces of information.
“Holding all the pain with all the pleasure leads many survivors to blame themselves rather than see their partner in their entirety,” she says.
Blaming yourself sounds like:
- It’s my fault.
- I deserved that.
- I’m the crazy one.
- I made them upset.
- I shouldn’t have said anything.
People who abuse others often avoid responsibility as a defense mechanism.
“Aggressors often shift blame to someone else to maintain their sense of power by having the survivor feel as if they are the cause of the behavior,” says Sabina Mauro, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
“It distorts their reality by pushing away the individual from realizing that they are in an abusive relationship,” she adds.
What blaming other people sounds like:
- You’re crazy.
- You made me do this.
- I wouldn’t have done this if you wouldn’t have done that.
Control isn’t always loud and in your face. Sometimes, it’s the little things.
“Controlling behavior is often subtle and slow-moving,” says Cook. “This is how aggressors are able to assert power gradually — it rarely happens with a sudden and intense onset, as many people would walk away from this behavior.”
It’s often not until a relationship has been established that controlling behavior works its way in, she adds. “It’s making a person believe that the aggressor ‘knows best’ and they’re ‘looking out’ for their partner by making judgment calls on their life.”
Some examples include:
- always being the driver
- blocking access to safety
- interfering with personal belongings
- putting down things you enjoy
- saying who you can hang out with
- taking away your keys
- withholding your phone
In abusive relationships, put-downs about your goals or the hobbies you love can slowly erode your confidence over time.
“Aggressors belittle or put down their partner to diminish their credibility and self-worth,” says Mauro. “It creates a vicious cycle for the survivor of feelings of self-blame, guilt, shame, as well as unhealthy thinking patterns such as: I deserve this behavior.”
Put-downs can sound like this:
- I don’t think you could handle that.
- How’s it going on your little project?
- Do you really think you can pull this off?
If someone pushes your buttons enough, you may snap, which is called reactive abuse. This can include verbal outbursts, breaking objects, or physical violence.
“Reactive abuse confuses who is at fault,” says Rahmah Albugami, a licensed professional counselor in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
The response from the survivor could be perceived as lashing out during the abuse, she says, making it look as if the survivor is the one who started the problem.
“Reactive abuse occurs when the person who abuses pushes the survivor into acting reactively by screaming, yelling, or crying, thus proving to the abuser that the survivor is mentally unstable or ill,” she adds.
Albugami says that reactive abuse can happen in response to:
- being made to feel crazy
- manipulative tactics
If any kind of abuse is present — reactive or otherwise — it’s not healthy.
Impression management means trying to control what others think of you. We all do it to some degree, but people who behave abusively do it to gain the upper hand.
They may be one person in public and another behind closed doors.
“At their core, they don’t feel so great about themselves even with all their bluster,” says Thomas Plante, PhD, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.
“They have their own insecurities and esteem problems,” Plante adds. “Abusing others makes them feel more in control and powerful. They present themselves as usually more important than reality, and they certainly aren’t humble, unless it’s an act to achieve something they want.”
As you might imagine, this comes in handy in legal situations with law enforcement. When a third party sees someone positively, it prevents them from suspecting abuse.
Impression management may look like:
- controlling someone’s interactions with others
- questioning what they’ve shared with people
- going through someone’s phone to get the upper hand
- a picture-perfect social media presence
Perhaps this story took the internet by storm because it’s an assault on our collective consciousness, challenging the way we revere influencers and expect their lives to be perfect.
The heartbreaking fate of Gabby Petito highlights that, ultimately, none of us has any idea what’s really going on behind the scenes. Even when (and perhaps especially when) it looks like it’s all smiles.
Maybe we could all use a well-timed reminder: Social media is not real life.
If you’re in a toxic, abusive, or violent situation, you’re not alone. There are many options for support available.
For immediate help, you can contact:
Relationships — and human beings in general — are very complicated, says Plante. It’s often difficult to describe the nuance of intimate relationships or intimate partner abuse.
“We all need to be vigilant about warning signs and try to provide support to people who are at risk to keep everyone safe,” he says.
“It is a heavy lift, but we all could do our part to help out.”