By now, you’ve probably heard of Gabby Petito. The story of two young lovebirds on a cross-country trip gone wrong took the world by storm early this September.
Seemingly overnight, Gabby’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed photos were all over the internet. For many of us, Gabby’s last moments were familiar enough to make our blood turn ice cold.
Because I’ve been in Gabby’s shoes, and you might have, too. At the very least, you know someone who has.
Why Gabby’s Story Caught Our Attention
On August 12th, police stopped Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie after a witness reported a domestic confrontation. Laundrie, the driver, was also speeding and hit a curb while the officer followed behind him.
The Moab County police dashcam footage is some of the last known footage of Petito alive. In it, the couple is separated. They each rehash their version of events to the police.
Petito is visibly distraught. She willingly accepts most of the blame for the altercation. “We’ve been fighting this morning,” a crying Petito tells the police officer.
“I was cleaning and straightening up. I was apologizing to him and saying, ‘I’m sorry that I’m so mean.’ Sometimes, I have OCD, and I can get frustrated. Not like, mean towards him. Just, my vibe is—I’m in a bad mood.”
“I just quit my job to travel across the country, and I’m trying to start a blog,” she continues. “I’ve been building my website. I’ve been really stressed and he doesn’t really believe that I could do any of it. So, we’ve just been fighting all morning. He wouldn’t let me in the car before.”
Petito’s recalling of events made me sick to my stomach. I recognize the desperation of a partner willing to throw themselves under the bus for the person they love. I know what it feels like to take the blame and none of the grace.
Sure, it always takes two to tango. But given her grim fate, I can’t help but feel like Petito was a victim of gaslighting.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is “an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation.” A single deceiver usually practices it on a single victim over an extended period.
“At its heart, gaslighting is emotional abuse,” psychotherapist Jeremy Bergen, MS, LCPC, told Brides.com. “It’s a tactic one partner uses to exert power over, gain control over, and inflict emotional damage on the other.”
Gaslighting undermines a victim’s perception of reality. They no longer know what’s real and what isn’t. Victims become emotionally and mentally dependent on the gaslighter, thus continuing the abusive cycle.
We don’t know what happened behind closed doors in Petito and Laundrie’s relationship. But having been there myself and watched countless others who have as well, her situation reeks of gaslighting.
So, how do you know if someone is gaslighting someone else?
1. They Are Constantly Lying
Gaslighting is, in essence, a specific form of lying. Gaslighters lie to exploit and confuse others. Remember, gaslighting is all about throwing the victim off-kilter.
By setting up a precedent for falsehood, the victim can no longer be sure what to believe. Chronic lying with sprinkles of truth is textbook narcissist behavior.
The lies can be small or large, significant or petty. Because to the gaslighter, it’s all about making the victim lose their ability to think for themselves.
2. They Make You Question Your Reality
Even if you catch a gaslighter in a lie, they are unlikely to admit to it. Instead, gaslighters will deny, project, and manipulate. They want you to question yourself, not them.
Gaslighters will deny things they said or did with or without proof. Ironically, they will often claim the victims are projecting. And when all else fails, they blame the victim for causing confrontation in the first place.
“When someone is manipulating you, you end up second-guessing yourself,” Dr. Robin Stern of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence told The Guardian. “[You turn your] attention to yourself as the person to blame.”
3. They Find Little Ways To Wear You Down
It becomes easier for victims to blame themselves after being worn down by their abuser bit by bit. Snide remarks and comments wear away at a victim’s confidence.
I couldn’t help but notice when Brian Laundrie talked about Petito’s career plans. “She’s trying to start up a “little” website, blog, and everything,” Laundrie told the police.
Paired with Petito’s comment about Laundrie not believing in her, his “little” microaggression stuck out like a sore thumb. Over time, these passive-aggressive comments can completely undermine a person’s self-image.
4. Their Actions Don’t Match Their Words
Most gaslighters are masterful smooth talkers. So, it’s important to look at their actions, not just their words.
They will often make promises they rarely keep. Gaslighters might go so far as to use their love as leverage. ‘I’m only doing this because I love you.’ Or ‘you should know I would never do that because I love you.’
If they’re not actually acting on those words, it’s—for lack of a better term—all bs.
5. They Try To Turn Others Against You
One of the most common abuser tactics is to separate the victim from their loved ones. An isolated victim is more likely to depend solely on their abuser for companionship and support.
Gaslighters will try to do this both directly and indirectly. They might convince you that your friends and family don’t care about you. Or, they’ll go behind your back to start drama themselves.
Abusers know the more alone a victim is, the less likely they are to fight back.
6. They Dismiss Your Emotions
Finally, gaslighters thrive on dismissing their victims’ emotions. It’s just another form of deception.
The abuser erases the victim’s reality by telling them what the victim is feeling. In Petito’s case, Laundrie kept telling her to calm down despite her feeling “relatively calm.”
In fact, Petito claims the main confrontation—the one that the witness called in to the police—was her “trying to get him to stop telling me to calm down.”
This is emotional and mental abuse, and it’s incredibly psychologically distressing.
What To Do If You Feel Like You’re Being Gaslit
Unfortunately, Petito’s case is not unique. Tens of thousands of BIWOC go missing every year with little to no media attention.
There is a clear argument to be made about why Gabby, an all-American, white woman, was given more attention than, say, Lauren Cho. But that’s another argument for another time.
And regardless, Gabby’s case is tragic. But her death can serve some greater purpose if it means saving another woman from abuse, or worse, death.
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental or emotional abuse, seek help immediately. Tragically, Gabby’s fate was sealed sometime in September. But yours doesn’t have to be.