Partner Violence: We All Know a Gabby

By Barbara Pierce

The story of Gabby Petito has blown up in the media: the attractive 22-year-old who went on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé and never returned home.

The young couple set off from Long Island in July in their converted van — documenting their travels on Instagram. Her remains were recovered in Wyoming in September.

It appears that she may have been murdered by her boyfriend or that there was ongoing abuse in their relationship. Partner violence is epidemic in this country; we just don’t always hear about it.

One in three females are victims of domestic violence in their lives, and one in 12 males, say experts. We think it happens to other people, but it can happen to anyone. It may be happening to someone you know. Maybe even to you.

Partner violence, or domestic violence or abuse as it’s often called, is usually not obvious. A lot of folks think it’s physical: hitting, punching, bruises on the face, things that we can see. But often the most intense and damaging harm happens behind closed doors: emotional abuse, controlling behavior, verbal abuse, things like that.

As a counselor, I worked in an organization that helped victims of domestic abuse. I was stunned, day after day, as woman after woman, and the occasional man, shared their horrific stories. I learned much about abuse from these brave people.

Twenty-two-year-old Gabby Petito was reported missing on Sept. 1 when her fiancé returned to their cross-country road trip in Florida alone. She was pronounced dead when her remains were found in late September in Wyoming. Her story reveals a pattern of intimate partner violence that is deeply emotional, and therefore hard to identify.Some of the things I believe are important for us to learn from Gabby’s story:
­­— In a healthy relationship, both people feel respected, supported and valued, decisions are made together, both have friends and interests outside of the relationship, and disagreements are settled with open and honest communication.
— Both have the right to their own feelings and ideas and to share them without worrying about how their partner will react. Their privacy is respected, including the rights to private conversations, phone calls, text messages, social networking.
— While there isn’t a sure way to spot an abuser, most abusers share some common characteristics.

This list of warning signs means the person may have the potential to be abusive:

  • Quick involvement: Many victims knew their abuser only for a short time before being pressured to live together or get married. The abuser comes on like a whirlwind saying things like: “You’re the only person I can talk to;” “No one else ever understood me before.” The abuser needs someone desperately and pressures the victim to commit.
  • Controlling behavior: The abuser tries to control your life: what you do, who you see, what you think. The abuser will be angry if the victim is “late” coming back. The abuser will question the victim closely about where the victim went, and who they spoke to.
  • Blames others for problems and feelings: Abusers are very good at making victims think they deserve the abuse and will blame the victim for almost anything that goes wrong. The abuser will say: “You made me mad,” “You made me do it. The abuser blames the teacher for a failed class, blames the cop for a traffic ticket, blames the boss for getting fired.
  • Unrealistic expectations: The abuser is very dependent on the victim for everything. The abuser will say things like: “If you love me, I’m all you need. No one will love you like I love you.”
  • Isolation: The abuser cuts the victim off from all resources and support. The abuser gets jealous of the other people in the victim’s life. The abuser does not “allow” the victim to make decisions or have friends.
  • Verbally abusive: In addition to saying things that are meant to be cruel and hurtful, there is an element of degradation, cursing, and criticizing any of the victim’s actions. The abuser may call the victim stupid; no one else would ever want them.
  • Past history of abuse: The abuser may say that a victim was only abused because they made the abuser do it. The victim may hear from the relatives or friends that the partner was abusive in past relationships.
  • Threats of violence: Any threat of physical force meant to control the victim. “I’ll slap you,” “I’ll kill you,” “I’ll break your neck.”

At Gabby’s funeral, her father, Joseph Petito, had a lesson for the world: “If there is a relationship that might not be the best for you, leave it now.”