Saving the next Gabby Petito. Relationship expert Heather Dugan exclusively tells In Touch how the late 22-year-old’s friends and family could have helped her get out of her “volatile” relationship with fiancé Brian Laundrie before their respective deaths.

“You know, bottom mind, this is an adult woman — a young adult woman, but yet an adult woman. And it’s really a difficult thing for family members and I do not in any way want to ever second guess what was said, or not said,” Dugan reveals. “So much comes down to timing and receptivity, but [as] many that have been in this kind of situation realized, you know, the most important thing is to keep that communication open. You need to let them express, actually to kind of find their feelings and voice them. Because when they’re alone, it’s kind of swirling around without a landing spot. And if a family member jumps in too solidly, you can cut that off because you don’t want to be on the other side, you want to stay on their side, which means you need to be available with unconditional love and listen. It’s more of a suggesting and guiding as best you can.”

The award-winning author of The Friendship Upgrade and Date Like a Grownup went on to clarify, “I don’t want to make that sound manipulative, but to offer options to that person, to remind them of who they are, what their capabilities are. We lose track of that when we’re stuck in that kind of a situation, we forget who we are. We forget the abilities that we’ve had our whole life because we’re getting kind of beaten down. So it’s hard to know what the family saw or didn’t see. I would assume that they probably did the very best they could with, with the tools and information they had available to them at the time.”

Petito, 22, and Laundrie, 23, were in a longterm relationship after meeting at Bayport-Blue Point High School in Long Island, New York, where they were both originally from. The couple got engaged in July 2020. They were living together and sharing a home with Laundrie’s parents, father Christopher Laundrie and mother Roberta Laundrie. In July, they embarked on cross-country road trip starting from Long Island through the American West in Petito’s converted white 2012 Ford Transit van, as part of the “van life” social media movement.

How Gabby Petitos Family, Friends Could Have Helped in Volatile Relationship With Brian Laundrie
Courtesy of Brian Laundrie/Instagram

On September 1, Laundrie returned home from the trip in the van without Petito. She was reported missing on September 11 by her family. On September 13, Laundrie was last seen by his parents and he was reported missing on September 17 — just two days before he was named a person of interest in his fiancée’s disappearance.

Gabby’s body was found on September 19 near Spread Creek dispersed camping area outside of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, one of the last places she was known to have been seen alive. The aspiring travel vlogger was confirmed dead on September 21. A warrant for Laundrie’s arrest was issued on September 23 in relation to his “activities following the death of Gabrielle Petito,” according to a press release tweeted by FBI Denver’s official Twitter account. Her autopsy results confirmed her manner of death as homicide and her cause of death as manual strangulation/throttling on October 12.

After having been missing for more than a month, Laundrie’s remains were found at the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park on Wednesday, October 20. He was confirmed dead on Thursday, October 21.

In the midst of Petito and Laundrie’s respective deaths, those close to them and people who have witnessed them on their travels have spoken out about their seemingly “toxic” relationship. Dugan shares tips for those who may find themselves in similar relationships.

“Well, if you were in a relationship like that, I think a lot of times I counsel people together,” Dugan tells In Touch. “Does this help you become more of the person you want to be? Are you doing for each other, or in order to stay in this relationship, do you have to kind of diminish yourself to fit in a box of some sort of parameters that maybe aren’t fully what you wish for your life? There is adjusting and definitely some compromises when you’re in a relationship, but it should not compromise essential parts of yourself. So if somebody is trying to make you into somebody different than who you know yourself to be, pull you away from the things that are most valuable to you, you can’t let your hope for this person … We fall in love with hypothetical people. Sometimes we throw all our hopes and dreams on them and just expect them to blossom and bloom into what we had planned on for our life and accept this reveal that they’re not that man or woman, and it does happen to men too. You know, that’s the time to just pause, step back. It’s easier to say, you know, to say, than to do, but it is essential to really get in a place where we can  make our decisions on that without being pulled.”

Dugan added, “And another point I really want to make it so important to have a larger foundation for your life, because that is what gives you perspective. And then you’re assured that people are going to be able to reflect back to you a true image of yourself. A lot of times, you know, the abusers are reflecting back an untrue image and the abused victim is trying very much to change that image. They’re trying to change that the reflection that they get from that person, and that’s just not going to happen.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential support.

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