Using the Recreational Vehicle (RV) as his primary tool, Oliver articulated a road map for his relationship with Shane, the details of which Oliver found himself actively navigating and negotiating throughout the course of the film. From mattresses in the road, to outright breakdowns, Oliver discovered even the best plotted maps are prone to detours, requiring reappropriation and recalculation.
Relationship Road Map
“You see, Norman, it's really not that difficult. You just have to make friends with every little noise and rattle in the chassis, if you want to learn what she likes and what she doesn't. The thing to remember is always pay attention... [you] just have to keep a good balance between looking behind and looking forward. And most importantly---you have to treat her with respect. Don't push her too hard---she might break down. Before too long, with patience and determination, you start to become one.”
Where this conversation took place is just as important as what was said. It was no coincidence that Oliver was in the driver’s seat, nor that Norman occupied the immediate co-pilot seat, operating his own imaginary steering wheel. Oliver described to Norman the path to marriage, a path which Norman’s engagement to Rita had squarely placed him on. At the same time, Oliver articulated his philosophy for growing and developing his relationship with Shane. In both cases, each man needed to lead and exercise vision in order to navigate from their current season into the next with their partner, taking care to observe the above stated parameters to do so.
Not an endeavor for the faint of heart, Oliver, in particular, found himself struggling to follow his "road map" as he attempted to keep his relationship with Shane on course when “a mattress, which no one could have predicted” appeared in the road to becoming one.
Caution: Mattress Ahead
It figured the first time Oliver went to reaffirm the extent to which he and Shane knew each other that her phone would ring with yet another text from Alex Brighton. But while we have context for the name now, Oliver certainly did not at the time. And it was clearly not what he was expecting to see when he picked up the phone. Consequently, Oliver was faced with his first major relationship crisis.
For all intents and purposes, Oliver seemed to be handling the surprise well given the circumstances. At least, until he wasn’t...
The first time Oliver was in the driver seat, it was smooth sailing as Oliver dispensed sage relationship advice. Now, not only was the RV broken down, but his relationship with Shane appeared on the same trajectory. In his frustration, Oliver continued to put his foot on the gas in an attempt to will the RV---and their relationship---to restart. During one of these attempts, the shrill shriek of Shane’s text message alert sounded, which caused him to push the RV even harder, to no avail. Ignoring the advice of his co-pilot, he was determined to use his own wisdom and understanding to unilaterally resurrect the seemingly dying vessel.
We know Oliver thought the RV---and their relationship---was on a terminal trajectory from his desire to “check for cracks in the manifold or the water levels.” In Oliver’s mind, that text from Alex was akin to a critical sign of system failure, one which had him questioning everything, including Shane, from whom he refused to take any advice regarding the circumstances. In a sense, she had suddenly become untrustworthy.
What's more, Shane had made it a point on more than one occasion up until that point to reiterate that "[she] knew Oliver O'Toole," predicting his behavior and even recalling he liked his ham on rye. Shane could read him like a book, but for Oliver, Shane's narrative had sudden become a foreign language. So when Shane responded to the quickly escalated situation with, “Who are you and what have you done with Oliver O’Toole?” Oliver was probably wondering the same thing about her.
Interestingly, Oliver might have very well gotten to the bottom of it right then and there had he not nearly completely abandoned his own, well articulated, relationship road map at the first sign of trouble.
Or Temporary Failure to Restart?
It’s not hard to see how Oliver’s handling of the situation with Shane, filtered through the RV breakdown, strayed from his guiding principles.
Instead of “making friends” with the “noises and rattles”--- in this case, Shane’s dinging cell phone and the text message it contained--- Oliver made an enemy of them. An opportunity to get to know Shane in a deeper way, or at the very least directly address the health of their relationship if it was, in fact, compromised, Oliver instead temporarily withdrew and became distracted at the campsite.
Removed from the situation, Oliver quickly perceived his errors, the first of which was realizing he “[wouldn’t] be able to push [Shane]” when it came to addressing his discovery on her phone, especially in a confrontational manner. Perhaps not truly ready to address the issue himself, Oliver’s attempt to cost-shift as a means of self-preservation had only served to exacerbate his frustration and escalate the situation, Shane still none-the-wiser as to the catalyst for his “overheat[ing].”
Oliver’s decision to invite Shane to once more be his “co-pilot” was his attempt to “restart” their relationship. But it couldn’t truly be revived without some closure. Unwilling to let the rift caused by his “overheating” persist, Shane had the presence of mind to initiate reconciliation, making use of the RV Owner’s Manual to do so. A simple gesture, she reminded Oliver exactly where he went wrong---losing patience---and presented him with the opportunity to admit “the RV overheated---and so did [he].” Like the revived RV, their relationship could once more move forward.
A wrench in his well-oiled machine, Alex’s text message was the first major test of Oliver’s relationship road map. The discovery of the text--and the unknown person behind it---a “mattress, which no one could have predicted” in the road to becoming one with Shane, Oliver quickly scrapped his relationship road map. Off track, Oliver’s outburst exposed the gap between his expectation of his road map, and his lack of ability to apply it to his circumstances, as Oliver decided whether his relationship with Shane was headed for a breakdown, or simply experiencing a temporary failure to restart in light of his unsettling discovery. Choosing the latter for the time being, Oliver attempted to get their relationship back on track, and was able to do so with a little help from Shane.
Another Fork In The Road
Without realizing it, Shane actually articulated two additional areas where Oliver stumbled during their earlier interaction, while also revealing relationship dynamics that were important for Oliver to learn. First, she observed how Rita and Norman had “something going on between them they [hadn’t] figured out yet, but still [held] hands...and didn’t let whatever it was pull them apart.” Clearly, Oliver had let the discovery of the text message from Alex cause a temporary rift in their relationship when he “overheated.” Similarly, as Shane so wisely articulated, Oliver had subjected Shane to “a test [she] didn’t even know [she] was taking,” a common characteristic of relationships fated to end. Seemingly convicted by her commentary, and cognizant of his own detrimental behavior, Oliver made a U-turn in his approach to addressing what was bothering him.
Notably, Oliver began by confirming the boundary of “relationship” he and Shane established in Home Again, before he attempted to address something troubling inside that boundary. It was a way of ensuring he was within his rights to ask, as well as confirming he and Shane were on the same page---both signs of respect. Calmly, quietly and respectfully, without letting go of her hand, Oliver asked Shane, “Who is Alex Brighton?”
Shane didn’t hesitate to positively identify where he saw the name, but, “not ready to talk about it yet” asked Oliver to “trust [her].” After a beat, he agreed. To trust Shane implied she had earned that level of trust from him. This decision was also the end result of Oliver placing their relationship in the context of where it had been, and where Oliver envisioned it going. Learning from his earlier mistake, Oliver recognized it would be detrimental to continue to push Shane beyond where she was ready to go where Alex was concerned. So he gave her the space she needed to continue working through her issue in order to continue moving forward in their relationship. Oliver discerned that only patience was going to yield the answers he sought.
Quick to correct his earlier mismanagement of the Alex situation, Oliver’s actions outside the Lodge represented the true power and potential of his relationship road map when applied.
Where Oliver acted single-minded and selfish out of insecurity earlier in the day, he made the courageous decision to push past his insecurity and directly address the situation. At the same time, Oliver paid close attention to the way he engaged in that process. This enabled Oliver to exercise leadership and confirm their relationship status, while still expressing his concern. When Shane confirmed what Oliver saw, but made it clear she “wasn’t ready to talk about it yet,” OIiver had the presence of mind to place the situation in context such that the longevity of their relationship took precedence over his immediate need for answers. This respected Shane’s boundaries in a way that also demonstrated his trust in her. Additionally, Oliver’s decision to “hold [Shane’s] hand while [she] worked things out and “not [let] go” expanded the capacity of their relationship to possess “something going on between them they [hadn’t] figured out yet,” without loss of physical or emotional presence or support, a critical component of a healthy, long-term relationship.
Right Turn Or Left For Dead?
Oliver made significant strides towards getting to the bottom of Alex Brighton when he chose to directly address it with Shane. But as his pensive night alone revealed, Oliver still grappled with the situation and his feelings towards it.
Oliver’s whispered “Who do you belong to?” is significant in the sense that he clearly felt unattached to some extent, not unlike the wayward dinosaur he held. On the one hand, he had declared to Shane “I’m not letting go.” But was Shane deciding---or even preparing---to let go of him?
The Final Mile
“I still do---I just don’t know your sister. You’re two different people. You’re Shane McInerney and she’s...well she’s…”
“Alex Brighton. All those text messages on my phone---they’re from her.”
Because Oliver had made a decision to lean into the unknown, he didn’t immediately become overwhelmed and frazzled by the revelation of a sister, or her gambling issue. This allowed him to clearly and confidently differentiate between Shane and her sister, declaring that her sister’s actions did not reflect on her.
But when Shane connected the sister she referenced with Alex Brighton, something changed. Until that moment, Oliver had been operating on the subconscious assumption that whatever was on Shane’s phone somehow reflected on him, or on their relationship. It was an assumption that steered him towards fear of losing Shane and all its accompanying baggage. In this initial exchange in front of Minnie’s Diner, the sister to whom Shane referred finally connected to Alex Brighton, Oliver was freed from the prison of assumption. The fear of losing Shane removed, Oliver completely focused on supporting her.
Notably, that support included assuming some of her burden. Shane had committed to reaching out to her sister despite all her lingering hurt and anger. Oliver encouraged her to fulfill that commitment, and to “forgive [Alex] for being human.” But he also assured Shane that she “[wouldn’t] have to [make the call] alone.” When Oliver embraced Shane, both her burden and her person through that hug, two started to "become one." And that increased commitment received a label spontaneously as Oliver witnessed Shane reach out to Alex later that week.
Now Entering "Boyfriend"
Where Oliver struggled with "who [he] belonged to" earlier in the week, he established his own attachment and gave it a label. And that label of "boyfriend" was the end result of Oliver's successful application of his relationship road map, the core function and outcome of which was to increase the level of understanding and intimacy in their relationship.
In a relationship, "you never know someone as well as you think you do." The best one can do is enter that realm with the expectation of encountering the unpredictable "mattress," and possess tools to handle the "mattress" when it appears. As Oliver's journey in The Road Less Traveled proved, possessing such tools is only as good as one's ability to apply them. Oliver articulated a carefully laid relationship road map, the core function of which was to deepen his relationship with Shane by getting to know her in a complete and comprehensive way in pursuit of becoming one. Applied in the right context, his road map also possessed the capacity to handle "mattress[es] in the road [to becoming one], which no one could have predicted," a necessary part of the process of growing into his relationship with Shane and moving it forward.
When that "mattress" was named Alex Brighton, and presented itself in the form of text messages, however, it was immediately clear Oliver had a framework for how to deal with the unexpected, but never conceived of using it for that purpose. Confronted with his own insecurities and fear of losing Shane, Oliver abandoned his road map and fumbled through his first major relationship crisis, ultimately turning away an opportunity to deepen and develop his relationship with her.