Pair-living and a monogamous mating strategy are rare and theoretically unexpected among mammals. Nevertheless, about 10% of primate species exhibit such a social system, which is difficult to explain in the absence of paternal care. In this study, we investigated the two major hypotheses proposed to explain the evolution of monogamy in mammals, the female defence hypothesis (FDH) and the resource defence hypothesis (RDH), in red-tailed sportive lemurs (Lepilemur ruficaudatus), a nocturnal primate from Madagascar. We analysed behavioural data from eight male–female pairs collected during a 24-mo field study to illuminate the determinants of pair-living in this species. Male and female L. ruficaudatus were found to live in dispersed pairs, which are characterised by low cohesion and low encounter rates within a common home range. Social interactions between pair partners were mainly agonistic and characterised by a complete absence of affiliative interactions – body contact was only observed during mating. During the short annual mating season, males exhibited elevated levels of aggression towards mates, as well as extensive mate guarding and increased locomotor activity. In addition, males were exclusively responsible for the maintenance of proximity between pair partners during this period, and they defended their territories against neighbouring males but not against females. Together, these results point towards the importance of female defence in explaining pair-living in L. ruficaudatus. We discuss the spatial and temporal distribution of receptive females in relation to the female defence strategies of males and suggest possible costs that prevent male red-tailed sportive lemurs from defending more than one female.