Field and laboratory studies were used to assess: (1) whether size assortative mating occurred in the New Zealand amphipod Paracalliope fluviatilis and (2) hypotheses developed to explain size assortative mating. We found that assortative mating occurred and that larger females carried more eggs, suggesting they may be more valuable as mates. Laboratory experiments were then used to determine whether: (1) male size influenced the size of the female selected (mechanical constraints hypothesis); (2) male size influenced pairing success in the presence of competition (intrasexual selection hypothesis); (3) take-overs of females occurred and whether large males were more successful (intrasexual selection hypothesis); (4) guard duration varied relative to male and female size (guard duration hypothesis); and (5) females had control over pairing success and guard duration (intersexual selection hypothesis). Although there was evidence to suggest the existence of intrasexual competition for mates (i.e. both small and large males preferred large females), there was no evidence of overt competition (i.e. takeovers of paired females). There was also no difference with respect to how long small and large males guarded females, but large females were guarded longer by both male size classes. Females handicapped by having their mobility reduced were guarded for the same duration as control females but males were more likely to pair with handicapped females, suggesting that they were easier to amplex. Given the lack of evidence for direct male–male competition or female choice, we suggest that assortative mating may be the result of: (1) indirect competition (e.g. in situ large males may be better able to access and amplex the largest females) or (2) female resistance to small males in combination with higher costs that small males may incur in securing large females. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 92, 173–181.