Can We Protect Our Kids From Abusive Relationships? Gabby Petito's Death Makes Me Want To Try

Photo: @GabsPetito Instagram
Gabby Petito in a yellow pullover in front of a blue sky
Heartbreak

When I was nineteen years old, I had a boyfriend I was madly in love with. 

We were each on our way to separate colleges the first time we met at a party for his little brother. I remember the moment our eyes clicked, him sprawled across his family’s couch with a book of Russian history on his chest and a paperback copy of War and Peace in his hand.

When he kissed me that night, it was electric, like what you read about in books. We fell in love and I grew to love every single thing about this man. 

The other thing that grew in our relationship was conflict.

What started as cute banter grew into nit-picking, passive-aggressive commentary and outright shouting matches.

Once, on a long-distance phone call, he called me a name and hung up on me. Instead of walking away and cooling off, I called his parents’ home no less than twenty times before his dad picked up and said we both needed some space.

It was humiliating, but it didn’t break us up. In fact, we moved in together the next year. 

Looking back, I can see how dysfunctional our relationship was. It’s easy to chalk it up to being young and full of hormones, but there was something else at play.

The conflict was enticing because every time we made up after a blowout fight, it felt like we had overcome a challenge.

Every time we said “I love you” after a screaming match, it felt like that love had grown deeper. 

But it’s not true. It was never true. 

Looking back, I think we mistook our combative relationship for passion, and it was hard to imagine walking away from that.

Thankfully, we eventually did walk away.

Gabby Petito, the young woman who went missing after a van trip with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, never got that chance. 

RELATED: 30 Important Domestic Violence Lessons We Can Learn From The Gabby Petito / Brian Laundrie Case

There are many reasons why Americans have been riveted by Gabby's story. We relate to her. She is like us, or like our kids and she reminds us of how vulnerable we really are in the world.  

As details surrounding Gabby's disappearance emerged — including a heartbreaking video of a police interview with the couple in Utah and a 911 call reporting that Brian had slapped Gabby — the story shifted from a mysterious missing person case to that of a young woman stuck in a relationship fraught with conflict and abuse.

Sadly, Gabby’s body has been found in a field in Wyoming. Her death was ruled a homicide, and her boyfriend appears to be on the run.

As a parent of teenagers, watching Gabby's story unfold feels personal. I want to protect them from relationships like this one. 

But can we ever really protect our teens and grown kids from potential abusers — or from becoming abusers themselves?

For guidance, I looked for expert advice and got some great tips. 

After all, if we can do anything to help our kids have healthy relationships we have to try. 

RELATED: Why Are So Many 'Good' Teen Boys Still So Cruel To Girls? 

Here are 9 things I want my teens (and yours!) to know in order to avoid high-conflict & abusive relationships: 

1. There are healthy ways to fight and argue. 

You're going to disagree. You're going to get mad. That's normal.

"I want young people to understand that having a 'healthy relationship' doesn't mean you never fight or have conflict," says Christopher Pepper, a health educator and consultant in San Francisco. "It means that even when you are having conflict, your partner is still respectful to you, and makes some effort to understand your point of view."

The first way for parents to instill this lesson is to serve as a model when conflict arises in our homes. 

It doesn't matter if it's about breaking curfew or a political dispute, we show people that we care by listening respectfully and responding in a way that shows we hear them. 

That doesn't mean you have to agree with them, it simply models how they should be treated by people who claim to love them.

RELATED: How To Fight Like A Mature Adult And Find Real Middle-Ground

2. You get to establish your own ‘red lines’ and boundaries. 

It's easy to teach a child that they shouldn't hit people and that they do not deserve to be hit. But what about other types of aggression?

"I worry when I see partners name-calling, insulting, using slurs, stalking, or making threats of violence," says Pepper. "I encourage young people to think about their own 'red lines' that they never want crossed — and the things they never want to do to a partner — and to write them down."

Dr. Kate Balestrieri, a Licensed Psychologist and founder of Modern Intimacy, offers an example of when this communication may come in handy.

"Some people are more demonstrably passionate in their behavior or voice," she notes. "Cultural and relational influences have informed them in a way that says high conflict is to be expected, and even desired, because it is familiar."

Their partner, however, may find raised voices triggering or intimidating.

By talking about their 'red lines', as Pepper calls them, in a time when they're calm and connected, they have the opportunity to hear and understand the other so as to avoid unnecessary hurt. 

3. Power dynamics play a role in every relationship we have. 

Balestrieri notes that high-conflict relationships can lead to abusive situations, often when there is a power imbalance between partners.

"For many couples, where there is a power differential, high conflict signals threat," she notes. "When you add high conflict patterns of relating, a power imbalance can leave one partner at the mercy of another, in a desperate effort to stay safe or minimize harm."

Talking to kids about these power dynamics early and often is key.

You can talk about power dynamics between characters in movies, books, and on TV for practice.

You can also ask them who has power over them in their lives and how they "flex" that power in good and bad ways. Teachers, parents, and coaches are obvious examples, but what about popular kids at school, the 'leaders' of their social groups, their romantic partners or even bullies? 

Recognizing how our lives interconnect is a great way for kids to learn how to recognize abusive power dynamics — their own or someone else's. 

While not all high-conflict relationships will result in a death or missing persons case like Gabby Petito’s did, they can easily end with abuse. 

According to the website for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), “1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. This includes a range of behaviors (e.g. slapping, shoving, pushing) and in some cases might not be considered "domestic violence." 

The website also shares the jarring statistic that “1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.”

Power dynamics are just too important to look away from.

RELATED: Why Boys Are Mean To Girls Who Don't 'Like' Them & What Parents Can Do About It

4. Almost everyone needs a break during an argument. 

Taking a moment to cool off during a fight sometimes feels impossible. You're fired up, you feel you've been wronged, and you want to get your point across.

Everything inside of you is screaming at you to stay, to work it out, to make your partner understand. 

That's usually a good time to force yourself to step back, and the more you practice doing that, the better you'll get at it and the more natural it will feel.

Dr. Balestrieri agrees. “When our brains are overridden with emotion, or when we are in survival mode (fight, flight, freeze or fawn), rational thinking is generally not present," she explains.

"Taking a break from the interaction, and focusing on providing relief from emotional dysregulation, can help you eventually return to a productive form of conflict resolution."

That's because we often make poor choices in survival mode, and sometimes those choices hurt people we love.

"If one or both partners are dysregulated," adds Dr. Balestrier, "conflict is likely going to escalate, because dysregulation is a reaction to, and perpetuates, a sense of threat.” 

So tell your partner when you'll be back and when (usually twenty or so minutes is sufficient) and then show up when and where you said you would to calmly talk it out.

Like everything else, we can model this in conflicts with our kids, too.

5. You should never feel ashamed to talk about your relationship. 

Everyone fights, and everyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that, so discussing these arguments with your parents or friends should feel comforting, not shameful.

That doesn't mean that we should go on and on about our partner's every annoying habit, it means processing an argument with someone you trust who can help you see, objectively, where you can do better and what you might be missing.

I know that in my high-conflict past relationship, I didn't want people to know about our fights because I knew they'd either think I was "crazy" or that my ex was out of line. I didn't want them to judge him.

While our relationship was never abusive, that should have been a red flag.

Conveying to our kids that they can talk to us about their relationships — when they're 13 or even 33 years old— is just one part of being the safe place for them to land.

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As parents, we need to show up as objective, loving "processing partners" at those times. 

It can be tempting to be angry at the person who has caused our kids to be sad or think anyone who disagrees with our children is being unreasonable, but objectivity is key. Help them see when they've been wrong, and be clear if you believe they deserve better treatment.

We need to remind them that shame in a relationship is often a major red flag and then be there if they need us. 

RELATED: 7 Red Flags That Mean You're In Love With The Wrong Person

6. Trauma bonds can be mistaken for love.

According to Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, "trauma bonds occur when you go through periods of intense love and excitement with a person followed by periods of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment."

Trauma bonding can happen in any type of relationship, but can be hard to spot from inside a romantic relationship — and hard to break free from. 

According to Dr. Bates-Duford, one of the characteristics of trauma bonding is knowing someone is bad for you, but finding yourself continually going back to them. 

It's important for young people to recognize that abusive relationships can create a trauma bond so they can be watching for these signs — and us, too.

7. Know when, and when not to, take responsibility. 

This can be tough for parents.

We need to be objective. After all, our child might be the one starting fights, exibiting controlling behaviors, or routinely over-reacting in their relationships.

To prevent this, we need to start early to help them learn how to manage their own reactions. Siblings and friendships offer great practice.

I've found with my own kids that fights and overreactions are often fueled by their insecurities, boredom, or even depression. All of these lessons can help our kids know when a problem is their responsibility and when it is not.

But it's important to note that some abusers will demand their partner take responsibility when it's not appropriate.

If you believe this is happening to your child, reach out to a qualified therapist or counselor for support. 

8. Healthy relationships take practice. 

"Relationships are like any other skill — we get better at them with practice," says Christopher Pepper. 

As an educator, he likes for young people to see dating as an opportunity to practice these skills. 

As parents, we can encourage our kids to keep trying at building healthy, happy relationships with everyone around them, not just romantic partners. 

We also need to model learning and growing for them by striving to communicate better with them and our partners, adapting when needed, apologizing when appropriate, in order to clearly showcase our own growth. 

9. It's OK to break up. 

Not every relationship is meant to last forever, and that's OK. This can be hard for young people to accept, especially in their first long-term serious relationships. 

"I want young people [...] to know that while it's ok to invest some time and effort into trying to smooth things out, it's also totally ok to call things off when they aren't working," says Pepper. "I like to remind teens that almost every happily coupled adult they see has survived a few breakups. They are part of life."

RELATED: Vloggers Who Found Gabby's Van Say Deceased Son Lead Them To Her

Not all love stories have to end with "...and they lived happily ever after." In fact, I'd say the ending of my love story with my high-conflict ex was ultimately a happy one.

The lessons I learned from him and the mistakes we made together are innumerable, and I'll never regret that. I'm fortunate that our relationship was never outright abusive.

While there's no guarantee that our parenting can protect our kids, it's likely the best we can do to help keep them safe — even after they've grown up and started their own adult lives. 

It’s also important to note that both abusers and survivors of abuse can come from families we perceive as “good.”

Not all abusers were abused, and not all victims were raised in abusive families. Even great parents can raise children who find themselves in dysfunctional relationships, and I have no doubt that Gabby's parents raised her lovingly. I'm sure they're just like you or me. 

That's what makes me want to do something — to try to prevent another Gabby Petito story.

But I’m far from an expert. I’m just a mom raising kids who believes that parenting can be activism when we do it right.

RELATED: Why We Should Never Tell Our Kids, 'She's Just Mean Because She's Jealous'

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, Esquire, Vox, and more. She has a degree in gender studies from UCLA and is raising three very busy kids while working from home. Follow her on Twitter for more.