Effective drug discovery and optimization can be accelerated by techniques capable of deconvoluting the complexities often present in targeted biological systems. We report a single-molecule approach to study the binding of an alternative splicing regulator, muscleblind-like 1 protein (MBNL1), to (CUG)n = 4,6 and the effect of small molecules on this interaction. Expanded CUG repeats (CUGexp) are the causative agent of myotonic dystrophy type 1 by sequestering MBNL1. MBNL1 is able to bind to the (CUG)n–inhibitor complex, indicating that the inhibition is not a straightforward competitive process. A simple ligand, highly selective for CUGexp, was used to design a new dimeric ligand that binds to (CUG)n almost 50-fold more tightly and is more effective in destabilizing MBNL1–(CUG)4. The single-molecule method and the analysis framework might be extended to the study of other biomolecular interactions.