Gene flow between ecologically divergent populations can prevent local adaptation, resulting in lower mean fitness and directional selection within a population. Such maladaptation should tend to be stronger in populations receiving a relatively larger fraction of immigrants. We test this expectation by comparing the strength of selection in a pair of three-spine stickleback populations in adjoining but unequal-sized lake basins in British Columbia. A larger deeper basin is connected to a smaller shallower basin by a short channel that allows extensive migration between populations. The two basins contain distinct habitats and prey communities, and stickleback stomach contents and isotope ratios differ accordingly. Trophic morphology is correlated with diet, so we would expect these ecological differences to be accompanied by morphological divergence. However, high gene flow appears to constrain adaptive divergence: microsatellites indicate that the two basins represent a single panmictic gene pool, and phenotypic divergence is very subtle. As a result, fish in the smaller lake basin are subject to persistent directional selection towards a more benthic phenotype, whereas the larger population exhibits no significant selection. The results illustrate the potentially asymmetrical effect of migration-selection balance, and its effect on fitness within populations. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 94, 273–287.