Pictures of Gabby Petito and her boyfriend/fiance before her disappearance
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What can the Gabby Petito case teach us about abusive relationships?

While police continue to investigate what exactly happened to Gabby Petito, domestic violence groups are hoping an incident before she disappeared will help spark a conversation about potential signs of abuse. 

Petito was reported missing in early September by her family. A few months prior, she embarked on a road trip with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie.

A month before Petito went missing, she and Laundrie were involved in a domestic disturbance in Moab, Utah. Police just released a 911 call from that day that indicated Laundrie as the one who was causing harm, but the body camera paints Petito as the aggressor, and that’s how police treated it.

We are hoping we can use this tragedy to shift the way we as a culture approach the complicated issue of abusive relationship and domestic abuse.

The 10 Signs of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse usually takes place as a means for one person to control another. If you’re worried that you may be experiencing this with your partner, Benton says to look for these ten signs defined by Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute:

  1. Control: Your partner may seem overly-invested in your social life, or police your day-to-day routines without acknowledging your desires. You don’t have the freedom to make your own choices (either overtly or subtly). Even small comments that undermine your independence are a means of control.
  2. Yelling: It’s normal for partners to raise their voice occasionally, but it’s not healthy when disagreements regularly escalate into shouting. It’s especially concerning if you feel afraid. Not only does yelling make a productive conversation nearly impossible, but it also creates an imbalance of power—only the loudest person is heard.
  3. Contempt: When one partner feels contempt for the other, it’s not easy for either person to express their feelings. Benton notes that in healthy relationships, there’s an expectation that your partner will listen and be respectful (even if they can’t give you what you need). If they respond to your needs with mean-spirited sarcasm, arrogance, disgust, or apathy, then contempt may create a barrier in your relationship.
  4. Excessive Defensiveness: When you constantly feel like you have to defend yourself, there’s less room for positive communication. It’s important that both parties are able to talk openly—and honestly—with each other to resolve issues. Excessive defensiveness, Benton says, can feel like you’re in a battle where your shield is always up.
  5. Threats: If your partner is threatening you in any way, you may feel like you’re in danger. Coercive “if, then” statements can include blackmail, threats of physical harm or suicide, or other intimidating remarks, but they often share the same intent: To back victims into a corner (and prevent them from leaving).
  6. Stonewalling: Benton notes that stonewalling takes place when one partner refuses to talk or communicate. If your partner shuts down uncomfortable conversations, it can feel like abandonment. Their refusal to discuss issues may come across as rejection or a lack of concern for your feelings.
  7. Blame: Victims are often made to believe that they cause—and therefore deserve—their own abuse and unhappiness, making the cycle much harder to break. This can be exacerbated by the shame that many victims feel for letting their abuse continue.
  8. Gaslighting: A form of psychological manipulation, gaslighting causes victims to doubt their memories, judgment, and sanity. If you find that your concerns (and even memories) are frequently dismissed as “false,” “stupid,” or “crazy,” you may be experiencing gaslighting.
  9. Isolation: Emotional abuse is pervasive, affecting all areas of life. Most notably is the toll it takes on victims’ relationships with friends and family. Abusers often convince their partners that no one cares. This alienation can cause victims to feel like they’re on an island, removed from loved ones and past versions of themselves.
  10. Volatility: If a relationship is constantly interrupted by mood swings, it can signal abuse. Many people experience natural ups and downs, but it’s a problem when it harms one’s partner. Volatile abusers often shower their victims with gifts and affection following an outburst, only to become angry again shortly after.

What is a codependent relationship?

A codependent relationship is when everything you do is in reaction to your abuser’s behavior. And they need you just as much to boost their own self-esteem. You’ve forgotten how to be any other way. It’s a vicious circle of unhealthy behavior.

You might be codependent if you:

  • are unhappy in the relationship, but fear alternatives
  • consistently neglect your own needs for the sake of theirs
  • ditch friends and sideline your family to please your partner
  • frequently seek out your partner’s approval
  • critique yourself through your abuser’s eyes, ignoring your own instincts
  • make a lot of sacrifices to please the other person, but it’s not reciprocated
  • would rather live in the current state of chaos than be alone
  • bite your tongue and repress your feelings to keep the peace
  • feel responsible and take the blame for something they did
  • defend your abuser when others point out what’s happening
  • try to “rescue” them from themselves
  • feel guilty when you stand up for yourself
  • think you deserve this treatment
  • believe that nobody else could ever want to be with you
  • change your behavior in response to guilt; your abuser says, “I can’t live without you,” so you stay

How Can I Get Out of an Abusive Relationship?

  • Know that you have the right to be safe. You have the right to be treated with respect. Knowing this is the first step.
  • Confide in someone you know. Tell a parent, trusted adult, health provider, or friend what you’re going through so they can help. Many adults know how to help in this situation. An adult might be able to get you to safety faster than a friend can.
  • Get help and support from experts. Going through abuse can leave you feeling confused, scared, or exhausted. Find a therapist to help you get your emotional strength back. They can help you sort through the many emotions you might be dealing with.
  • Get advice from someone at a helpline too. Learn more about how to get out of an abuse relationship safely. The helpline advisors also can talk to you about other things that might help you move forward.

If you aren’t in immediate danger and you need to talk or find someplace to go, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233. This 24/7 hotline can put you in touch with service providers and shelters across the United States.

Leaving the relationship is more complex if you’re married, have children, or have commingled assets. If that’s your situation, seek legal assistance. Here are a few other resources:

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