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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Reynolds

Gabby Petito Tragedy Speaks To Need For Relationship Education

Gabby Petito has been laid to rest, her fiancé Brian Laundrie remains at large, and while there are still lots of unanswered questions, the headline-grabbing homicide case with Long Island roots has re-opened some important conversations.

Toxic relationships, domestic violence, racial/ethnic disparities in missing-persons cases and the dark side of the nomadic “#vanlife” are all on the table.

Whether Petito was among the one in four American women who, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has suffered intimate partner violence, or is among the more than half of U.S. female homicide victims killed by a current or former male intimate partner, are among the unknowns.

At the very least, eyewitness accounts of the young couple’s cross-country fights suggest they shared a tumultuous and toxic relationship. The Aug. 12 police bodycam footage – Petito sobbing on the side of a desert highway, far from family and friends and questioning her own sanity, Laundrie joking and fist-bumping with cops – left many wondering how to best protect our daughters and granddaughters and the other young women in our lives.

Warning women about abusive partners and teaching them to spot possessiveness, jealousy, manipulation, belittling, guilting, volatility and social isolation – all red flags in unhealthy relationships – are important steps. So is giving women the encouragement, support and tools necessary to escape and survive emotional, psychological and physical abuse.

That’s been the primary approach to domestic violence, and with good reason: It’s valuable and reduces risk. But too many women are still dying.

Effectively preventing violence against women means educating and influencing the behaviors of perpetrators, potential perpetrators and their friends. In other words, as we warn young women, we should also ramp-up efforts to educate young men.

That’s not to say that men aren’t sometimes victims as well, or that abuse can’t be bi-directional. The CDC reports that one in 10 men will experience sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during his lifetime. Still, underreporting notwithstanding, men are the perpetrators about three times as often as women.

Let’s engage more young men in conversations about relationships, teach them how to better manage and express their emotions and create opportunities to redefine masculinity and build their communication skills. Let’s give them productive strategies for challenging other men who disrespect women and girls.

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And let’s start these conversations earlier. As elementary schools put boys and girls in separate rooms to watch corny films about menstruation, random erections and body changes, how about a discussion about happy, healthy relationships? How about discussing what to do if relationships go bad or how to help a friend struggling with an abusive partner? And can we ever give enough encouragement to kids about keeping the lines of communication open with trusted adults?

A 2018 survey of 18-to-25-year-olds by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that a large majority of young people actually want guidance on the emotional aspects of romantic relationships. More than 70 percent of respondents, for instance, wanted more information from their parents about developing a mature relationship, dealing with breakups or avoiding getting hurt in romantic relationships.

Without schools talking about this – and with parents unsure about what to say – we are failing to prepare young people for life’s most meaningful experience: creating and sustaining caring, healthy, lasting romantic relationships. Pop culture and wayward peers are left to fill the learning gap, not only robbing young people of the opportunity to learn how to love and be loved, but setting them up for what could instead become life’s most damaging and dangerous experience.

As police, roadside witnesses and all the people in Gabby Petito’s life agonize over what they could have done differently, the rest of us should do the same – not just for Petito, but for the 10 million American men and women each year who are pushed, punched, slapped, kicked or otherwise assaulted by someone they love.

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