By Katherine Donlevy
September 23, 2021
The tragedy of Gabby Petito’s death, and the widespread belief that it was at the hands of her fiancé, has sparked national conversations on how well-disguised an abusive relationship can be.
The couple seemed to put their personal life on display. As Petito, 22, and Brian Laundrie, 23, traveled across the country, they documented their days through social media and vlogs. But if speculation proves to be true, and Laundrie is responsible for Petito’s death, then the posts were hiding a much darker reality.
“It is very different behind closed doors,” said Manisha Shah, the senior director of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at Safe Horizon, a victim services nonprofit based in New York City.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 72 percent of all murder-suicides in the U.S. are committed by an intimate partner. Almost all the victims — 94 percent — are female. One in three women, and one in four men, have experienced some form of physical violence by a partner, according to NCADV data.
Domestic abuse begins well before it escalates to homicide, Shah pointed out. Red flags can be pinpointed even before the abuse becomes physical, she said.
“But there are a lot of telltale signs that everyone can identify, and help identify survivors in advance,” said Shah.
Recognizing the signs
Many of the warning signals that indicate an abusive relationship can be subtle, Shah said. They can come in a variety of forms, and not all are physical, but most stem from one partner being controlling over another.
“If a partner doesn’t like it when their significant other spends too much time with you, is constantly texting and calling them; if a friend abruptly cancels plans, but it’s not their nature, it’s a red flag,” said Shah. “They don’t have power or control in their life to make decisions.”
Shah said that personality changes are a major indicator that something may be off. A once-outgoing friend who has developed new insecurities and declines invitations for outings, or a friend whose personal hygiene has slipped into disorder could be experiencing a form of abuse, she said.
“Another big red flag is when a friend often tells you they can’t prioritize their needs because they have to cater to their partner. I think it’s a telltale sign that it’s entering abusive territory,” said Shah.
Abusive relationships often manifest in physical assault, she continued. Inexplicable cuts and bruises, as well as the victim wearing baggy clothes to hide them, can be a good indicator.
Francine Kelly, the senior director of patient care services at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills-Northwell Health, said warning signs can vary depending on the relationship between the abuser and victim. Abuse between partners, a parent and child or toward an elder can present itself in different ways, she said. That’s why Kelly and her staff pay close attention to an injured party’s behavior as closely as his or her wounds.
“They may be fearful. They may not want to volunteer information,” Kelly said. “We have to be mindful if they come in with somebody who presents with them that they may be involved in the violence … Sometimes you just take a pause and say, ‘Something’s not right here.’”
Once suspicion has been raised, Kelly said, the most important next step is to give the victim a chance to talk in a private, nonjudgmental setting.
“The person themselves has to be the one ready to reach out for help and be accepting of it,” said Kelly. “Perhaps they’re fearful of the situation they’re involved in. Give them the opportunity to speak privately. Really listen to what they’re saying, validating them.”
It may be hard for victims to open up because denial is a typical coping mechanism, said Yvette Caro, who directs the Queens College Psychological Counseling Center. In many instances of domestic violence, victims blame themselves for prompting their abuser to act out, she said.
“Shame is such a big piece of it in so many ways,” said Caro. “Oftentimes friends don’t know how to help. They think they’ll make it worse by saying something. You can’t control their lives, but it’s important for them to be able to speak in a judgment-free way to their friends.”
A tactic Caro suggested is speaking to a victim in very specific terms. Letting friends know that they are always welcome to show up at your home, even in the middle of the night, or offering to drive them to a therapist when they’re ready to talk are important steps in letting a victim know that opportunities are available.
Access to resources
Putting victims in touch with resources to help them safely exit an abusive relationship is key to ending violence before it escalates. Having an exit plan prepared prior to leaving the relationship, and having professionals on your side are safe ways to leave an abusive partner.
There are shelters throughout the city that house victims who feel unsafe in their homes. There are domestic violence advocates in every NYPD police precinct. There are hotlines for victims, such as Safe Horizon’s at 1 (800) 621-HOPE (4673).
“It’s important for them to know people can get help,” said Caro. “It’s hard and it’s a process, but people can create exit plans that are consistent with their values.”
Breaking the cycle
Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, spent most of his career working to solve homicide and missing persons cases, many of which involved domestic partnership abuse.
Giacalone believes the key to ending domestic abuse is educating and starting conversations with youth.
“If the father abuses the mother, then chances are the son will grow up to abuse his wife,” Giacalone said. “It’s a major problem in our society. We need to address certain aspects of that and raise our children better because that’s the next generation … We need to do a better job in the home and knock this out.”
Giacalone hopes that as the Petito tragedy continues to unfold, investigators can learn more about her mental state, perhaps in the form of a diary. Her outlook on life and her relationship could help professionals better understand domestic violence, if her death proves to be a case of one, and end the “circle of violence.”